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Google organizers call for new harassment policies amid mass walkout

Google organizers call for new harassment policies amid mass walkout

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Googlers protesting corporate harassment policies earlier this month in New York City.
Photo by Russell Brandom / The Verge

Hundreds of Google employees gathered in a New York park today to protest their employer’s handling of sexual harassment, part of a worldwide protest that included events in Dublin, London, Tokyo, Berlin, and several other cities. The employees are demanding that Google create a more transparent and effective process for handling sexual misconduct — and that it improve a culture that has allegedly fostered harassment and assault.

The mass walkout followed an explosive report that Android co-founder Andy Rubin was given a $90 million severance package after allegedly sexually assaulting a fellow employee. “This walkout is the culmination of a fast, furious week and the work of more than 1,000 people,” said Claire Stapleton, one of the organizers, to a crowd in New York’s 14th Street Park, just blocks from the Google office. “I don’t know what it will take to change the system, but I do know that we are a crazy force to be reckoned with.”

Another core organizer, who asked not to be named, says it’s an extension of years of organizing. “This is an emergent movement, but it’s building on a lot of work that’s already been done this year and over the years by a lot of people pushing for structural change,” the organizer said. “There’s a lot of infrastructure within Google right now. These are competent, committed people and they’re going to get it done.”

One protestor held up a sign referring to Google’s coding style requirements: “C++ Style, no exceptions,” the sign read. “Code of conduct, no exceptions.”

“These are competent, committed people and they’re going to get it done.”

Protests continued later in the day, as employees at Google’s main campus in Mountain View joined the walkout. The Mountain View event was sizable but more reserved — reporters were politely escorted away, told that the walkout was a “private company event” and not a protest. “We want them to take harassment claims more seriously. There are a lot of stories where people would tell HR or their manager that someone assaulted them, and nothing comes of it,” said participant Max Timkovich. One participant, who wished to not be named, criticized Google’s “broken system of reporting sexual harassment” and uneven gender split at the executive level. “Anywhere decisions need to be made, there need to be more women,” she said.

A Google employee in Mountain View, California holds a protest sign.
A Google employee in Mountain View, California holds a protest sign.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

The New York Times reported on Rubin’s behavior — and Google’s protection of him — late last week. It also named another executive, Rich DeVaul, who had kept his job despite misconduct; DeVaul resigned after the article’s publication.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai apologized to employees and pledged support for the walkout in an email earlier this week, saying he was “deeply sorry for the past actions and the pain they have caused employees.” He said Google had terminated 48 people — including 13 at or above senior manager level — for sexual harassment over the past two years, and that none had received exit packages.

Google released a public statement from Pichai as the walkout began, reiterating sections of the email. “Earlier this week, we let Googlers know that we are aware of the activities planned for today and that employees will have the support they need if they wish to participate,” it reads. “Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward. We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action.”

Later, in an interview at the New York Times DealBook conference, Pichai praised the “extraordinary courage” of women who had stepped forward. “We want to figure out how to support them better, and it’s a process, and I’m committed to doing better,” he said.

Pichai also used the conference to remind staff that he’s still the boss. “We don’t run the company by referendum,” he said.

Crowds gather in a park at the Google walkout in New  York City.
Crowds gather in a park at the Google walkout in New York City.
Photo by Russell Brandom / The Verge

The Google protestors have made five demands, which were posted to their Twitter feeds and detailed in an article for The Cut:

  1. “An end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination.” Additionally, Google workers could bring a co-worker, representative, or supporter when meeting with Human Resources.
  2. “A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity, for example making sure there are women of color at all levels of the organization, and accountability for not meeting this commitment.” Google would release internal reports on any salary or professional advancement gaps across employees of different races, genders, and ethnicities.
  3. “A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.” This would include the number of harassment claims and the division where they were made, the types of claims submitted, how many of the victims and accused have left Google, and the value of any exit packages — like the alleged payout for Rubin.
  4. “A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.” The new process would need to make Google’s HR department more independent from its senior management, and to be accessible to everyone who works with Google, including temporary employees and contractors.
  5. “Elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the board of directors. In addition, appoint an employee representative to the board.” The CDO and representative would help enforce the previous demands and propose changes.

“Let us be clear: we are just getting started”

Yana Calou, an organizer at worker activism nonprofit, says that the group’s first demand should be “no problem” for a company like Google. “There is absolutely precedent for removing sexual harassment from arbitration agreements,” Calou told The Verge. Google’s competitor Microsoft stopped requiring sexual harassment victims to go through arbitration last year, and Uber changed its policies after former engineer Susan Fowler published a galvanizing account of widespread harassment and sexism in the company.

A scene from the Google walkout in Mountain View, California.
A scene from the Google walkout in Mountain View, California.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

The #MeToo movement has often taken aim at forced arbitration — it’s a common practice that makes companies far less accountable for preventing harassment and assault. Legislators are also attempting to end the practice. In September, California nearly passed a law that would prohibit mandatory arbitration, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying that it violated federal law. In 2017, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a bill that would void any mandatory arbitration agreements in cases of sexual harassment and discrimination. The proposal remains stalled in Congress.

Other companies, including Microsoft, have dropped rules that force sexual harassment victims into arbitration

There’s much less precedent for putting an employee representative on the board of directors, although Calou notes that some European companies have appointed employee representatives to their boards. Similarly, it’s been very difficult to get companies to release numbers on the payment and promotion gaps between different races and genders — something Calou agrees should be more transparent. “Why do the people who actually work there not have the right information about their own jobs?” she says.

Mountain View protestor Rachel Dixon, senior product marketing manager at Google Play, says that these issues have raised a “critical mass” of support at the company. “It’s been easy to think in years past that this is some small minority that this affects. This [protest] is the kind of thing that makes us realize that we have power in numbers,” she said. “I do think time’s up, and the good guys — and gals — are going to win this one.”

There’s no timeline for Google agreeing to (or rejecting) any of the group’s demands. However, the past year has seen Google employees organize protests around a variety of issues, sometimes with significant results. This spring, thousands of employees petitioned the company to cease work on a Pentagon-backed military artificial intelligence project, leading Google to pledge that it would stay out of weaponized AI work. Many employees have also protested an alleged censorship-friendly Google Search app for the Chinese market — although its status remains unknown. “While leadership is listening to us, let us be clear: we are just getting started,” Stapleton told the cheering New York crowd.

Update 3:00PM ET: Added detail from Mountain View walkout.

Update 4:20PM ET: Added further detail from Mountain View and from the DealBook conference.

Additional reporting by Russell Brandom and Sean Hollister.