by Sharon Florentine

Google employee walkout results in forced arbitration policy change

News Analysis
Nov 21, 2018
CareersIT JobsStaff Management

Google employees worldwide walked out to protest how the company handled sexual misconduct claims against executives. In response, Google ended forced arbitration for some cases.

On Nov. 1, approximately 1,500 Google employees collectively protested inadequate handling of sexual misconduct claims related to two executives. At 11:10 a.m. local time, at more than two dozen Google offices worldwide, employees walked away from their desks, leaving behind a flyer that read:

“Hi. I’m not at my desk because I’m walking out in solidarity with other Googlers and contractors to protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace culture that’s not working for everyone. I’ll be back at my desk later. I walked out for real change.”

The protest was sparked by a New York Times report detailing how Alphabet CEO Larry Page asked Android co-founder Andy Rubin to resign following sexual assault allegations — and awarded him a $90 million exit package and a supportive statement from Page. The flames were fueled when the same New York Times story revealed that former senior vice president of search, Amit Singhal, received a similarly large severance and that Google X director Rich DeVaul was allowed to remain in his job after sexual misconduct claims, though he resigned immediately after the NYT story published.

Google (which recently removed “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct) didn’t deny the allegations in the NYT report; instead, CEO Sundar Pichai and Vice President of People Operations Eileen Naughton responded by saying the company has fired 48 people for sexual harassment and none of those received exit packages.

Employees request changes to Google’s company policy

Protest organizers asked for five concrete changes to Google’s company policy:

  1. End forced arbitration in harassment and discrimination cases.
  2. Commit to ending pay and opportunity inequity.
  3. A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.
  4. A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct anonymously.
  5. Change the executive hierarchy so that Google’s chief diversity officer (CDO) reports directly to the CEO, and enable the CDO to make recommendations directly to the board of directors. In addition, appoint an employee representative to Google’s board.

Google’s response to these sexual misconduct allegations is just the latest in a number of questionable decisions by the company in the past few years. As the NYT reports, “Workers have pushed back this year against the company’s artificial intelligence work with the Pentagon, saying their work shouldn’t be used for warfare. Google eventually decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon. Employees also rebuked Mr. Pichai and other executives for developing a search engine for China that would censor results. Since then, Google has not moved forward on a search product for China.”

And, of course, who can forget The Memo? “Google workers said other incidents had raised questions about the company’s attitude toward women. Last year, one engineer, James Damore, argued in an internal document that women were biologically less adept at engineering and that ‘personality differences’ explained the shortage of female leaders at the company. After an outcry, Google executives rejected the memo and fired Mr. Damore,” the NYT article reported.

At a 2017 staff meeting, founders Page and Sergey Brin themselves publicly struggled to name any female role models, according to two employees who watched the staff meeting via a video feed.

“Mr. Brin tried to recall the name of a woman he had recently met at a company event who had impressed him, the people said. Mr. Page eventually reminded Mr. Brin that the woman’s name was Gloria Steinem, the feminist writer. Mr. Page said his hero was Ruth Porat, the chief financial officer of Google and Alphabet, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly,” the article says.

Did I mention that Google removed “Don’t be evil” from its corporate mission and values statement?

While in the short term, the protests seem to have achieved at least one of the desired aims — this week, Google announced it would end forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases — it remains to be seen if the company will deliver on the others.