As I write this (1st November) thousands of Google staff in offices around the world have taken to the streets ‘to protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace that doesn’t work for everyone,’ according to the movement’s official Twitter feed.
The mass walkout is just the latest public display of employee anger within the search engine. It follows criticism of the company’s involvement with Project Maven back in March, high profile resignations over the leaked Dragonfly project in August, as well as the “Rubingate” scandal uncovered by the New York Times last month which saw key Android developer Andy Rubin given ‘a hero’s farewell’ and a $90m exit package after claims of sexual misconduct were made against him.
It would appear that the treatment of Andy Rubin (amid accusations that Google admitted to be completely credible) has been the key contributing factor to the well-orchestrated global protest.
Employees are united under a banner of five clear demands they want to see implemented within the organisation. Let’s unpick these proposed changes one-by-one to get a better understanding of how a multinational company might go about making them and why they are so important for the future of the tech industry.
1. An end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination for all current and future employees.
Forced arbitration refers to the policy of companies who only allow their employees the right to solve disputes via processes of internal arbitration.
Many organisations have forced arbitration clauses written into the employment contracts for their staff and while it isn’t a bad route to go down when employees have the option to solve disputes this way (this is known as voluntary arbitration), forced arbitration means that anyone at the company who wants to bring forward a case does not have the right to sue, to make a class action lawsuit, or to appeal – and nor do they have access to federal protections such as The Equal Pay Act of 1963.
A change within Google which would end forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination would signal a fundamental shift in corporate culture which has, to date, more often sought to protect the wellbeing of the company above the wellbeing of those who work on the office floor. It would ensure that any employee who is embarking on the complex and, often, emotionally difficult process of raising a dispute would have the right to raise it outside of the internal arbitration framework if they want to.
There is some advantage for Google itself when internal disputes are resolved by internal arbitration – but this change could certainly help rekindle their image as a progressive organisation.
2. A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity.
Google is still plagued by a significant gender pay gap, as well as a lack of representation of women and people of colour at board level. In the US during 2017, the Department of Labor said that its audit of Google revealed ‘systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.’ This was followed by UK reports by The Telegraph this year where the company admitted that the mean average salaries for women working at the search engine were 17% lower than the salaries for men.
Of course, the ethical argument for pay and opportunity equity is clear, but there is increasing data which points to the business and economic value of diverse workforces. McKinsey’s illuminating Delivering through diversity report published earlier this year sees companies in the top quartile for gender diversity being 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. The most ethnic and culturally diverse businesses see even better comparative performance, with those in the top quartile earning 33% more than those in the fourth quartile.
3. A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.
The value of this quite straightforward. It will be useful for employees, future employees and the public to have a full understanding of the levels of harassment which have occurred within Google’s walls. It will also go some way to drawing a line under the problematic nature of the Andy Rubin resignation, and will set the company on a course of renewed transparency.
4. A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.
This change will further set Google on course to improving the lives of people at all levels of the business. It would improve the rights for victims of harassment and would provide better support as they go through the process of reporting misconduct. It would also give employees more confidence in coming forward should they be unsure whether to report something.
The organisers of the protest sum it up well, ‘The improved process should be accessible to all: full-time employees, temporary employees, vendors, and contractors alike. Accountability, safety and an ability to report unsafe working conditions should not be dictated by employment status.’
The goal to roll this out globally would be a positive step for the tech industry at large – showing that the organisation can be united across borders in protecting the rights of all who work there.
5. Elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the Board of Directors. Appoint an Employee Rep to the Board.
This will be the step which ensures numbers 1-4 are implemented and that there is the necessary accountability in place for these demands going forward. The CDO and Employee Rep will also be in the position to suggest changes in the realm of gender and ethnicity equity.
Five real positive changes for Google, its employees and the tech industry
It has been fascinating to see this protest play out across news sites and social media today. The walkouts in New York, Dublin, London, Berlin, Haifa, Zurich, Tokyo and elsewhere have shown that staff are united in wanting to see the company do better for their current employees, as well as the thousands of gifted programmers, developers, engineers etc. who are looking to the company as a potential source of work in the future.
It also gives Google a clear opportunity to listen to the needs of the very people who make the business work. If they implement these changes, and acknowledge that the actions of their staff are justified, then they can be seen as a leading light for worker’s rights and equity within the tech industry on an international level – a place which is too often seeing such values eroded.