Here’s What Happens When 20,000 Employees Walk Out to Protest Workplace Harassment
Google has always been a company of massive numbers. The name “Google,” for instance, derives from the number googol, equivalent to 1×10100, or 10 thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. Why a googol? Maybe it’s the company’s target for web pages indexed, or—perhaps more likely—its annual revenue goal.
They may only be a fraction of a googol, but two more substantial numbers recently rocked the internet giant’s offices around the world: $90 million and 20,000.
The first is the exit package Android creator Andy Rubin received after he left the company in 2014, following reports that he had engaged in sexual misconduct, according to an explosive New York Times article.
The second is the approximate number of Google employees and contractors who recently walked out in protest of the workplace culture and policies that protect executives like Rubin while marginalizing workers who have experienced discrimination and harassment.
Since we’re talking in terms of big, big numbers here, let’s break things down and dig a little deeper.
Several years ago, Rubin allegedly engaged in an extramarital affair with another Google employee. The employee filed a sexual harassment complaint accusing Rubin of coercing her into oral sex, a claim the company’s internal investigators found credible. Google asked Rubin to resign—and then compensated him with tens of millions of dollars upon his exit, even though, as the New York Times reports, the company “had no legal obligation to do so.” Rather, it appears Google wanted to dodge potential legal troubles and dissuade Rubin from taking a job with a competitor.
Rubin is one of 4 elite employees accused of harassment whom Google or its parent company, Alphabet Inc., apparently paid off. Others mentioned in the NYT article include David C. Drummond, Richard DeVaul, and Amit Singhal. Singhal, a former vice president of Google’s search department, left in 2016. DeVaul recently resigned from his post as director of Google X. Drummond still works as Senior Vice President of corporate development and Chief Legal Officer for Alphabet.
In all 4 cases above, the man accused of misconduct faced few consequences, walked away with millions, or moved on to an equivalent or better role at the company. The individuals who filed the claims, meanwhile, were transferred, terminated, or told by HR to keep quiet. Some feared retaliation for speaking out.
That silence ended earlier this month when thousands of Google employees in 50 cities around the world participated in a mass “walkout for real change” motivated by the NYT article. In an essay published in The Cut, the protest’s organizers wrote that employees throughout all levels of the company had “had enough” of allowing their “lives and careers [to] become collateral damage” in the aftermath of a harassment or discrimination claim:
“All employees and contract workers across the company deserve to be safe. Sadly, the executive team has demonstrated through their lack of meaningful action that our safety is not a priority. We’ve waited for leadership to fix these problems, but have come to this conclusion: no one is going to do it for us. So we are here, standing together, protecting and supporting each other. We demand an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and the systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture.”
The protestors demanded several changes from Google leadership:
- “an end to forced arbitration claims in harassment and discrimination claims;”
- recognition of an employee’s right to “bring a co-worker, representative, or supporter of their choosing when meeting with HR;”
- “a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity;”
- “a publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report;”
- “a clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously;”
- “promot[ing] the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO;”
- the naming of “an Employee Representative to the Board.”
The walkout appears to have succeeded—beyond generating headlines. Days after the protest, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a memo to all employees outlining how the company will revise its sexual harassment policies.
The announcement, which is available to view on Google’s blog, divides changes into categories of “Transparency,” “Care,” and “Workplace.” Updates include the following:
- no more forced arbitration;
- more detailed data pertaining to sexual harassment investigations and outcomes;
- publicly visible reports and processes;
- a new Investigations Practice Guide, published internally and continually reviewed;
- more support for workers, including a process for employees to bring companions to HR meetings, a special harassment advisory team, and “opt-in care services” such as extended counseling and leave accommodations;
- a greater focus on temporary workers, vendors, and contractors who file claims or are accused of misconduct;
- a firmer commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts;
- enhanced training for new employees.
In addition to those actions and commitments, we found the new consequences for not doing training particularly illuminating. Pichai’s blog post states that the company “will update and expand our mandatory sexual harassment training,” warning that employees who don’t complete their training will “receive a one-rating dock in Perf,” Google’s performance review system.” The full announcement expands on this:
“Starting next year, all employees will complete mandatory sexual harassment training annually (currently required every two years). Employees out of compliance with any required training will be docked one rating in the year end Perf cycle (e.g., Exceeds Expectations will be moved to Consistently Meets Expectations). This applies to all Googlers including our senior leaders.”
That’s right: it wasn’t until 2018 that the company with the world’s second-largest market cap decided to hold employees accountable for completing anti-harassment training. Interesting that Google didn’t take a page out of New York’s playbook sooner.
Regardless of what may or should have happened in the past, all eyes are on the company’s future. Will the tech giant return to “business as usual?” Or will the 20,000-Googler walkout mark a turning point in an industry known for its often-willful tolerance of misconduct, with Google’s new controls creating measurable change and inspiring more companies to follow suit?
For the sake of every employee out there, we certainly hope that the days of workplace harassment are numbered.