Is the Google walkout a sign of things to come for even the most (allegedly) progressive of companies?

January 16, 2019

An estimated 20,000 Google workers took part in a global walkout last week in protest against claims of sexual harassment, gender inequality and racism at the company. This is the first time the tech giant has been the subject of this type of group action and is remarkable given its culture of individualism. In this blog, I examine the possible implications of this walkout in relation to the specific demands made by Google’s workers. I also consider whether we are seeing the start of increasing worker power against large corporates through mass protest.

The global walkout by Google workers started at 11.10 am on 1 November in Tokyo and within a few hours had rippled around the globe. Protests took place in Singapore, Israel, Zurich, Berlin, Dublin, London and New York, triggered by allegations of sexual misconduct against senior executives. The protesters said these were simply the most high-profile examples of such misconduct and that there were thousands of similar cases at the company.

The walkout came in the wake of news that Google had paid $90 m in severance to Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android mobile phone software, but had concealed the allegations of sexual misconduct that led to him leaving the company. The Rubin story was broken by the New York Times and the newspaper has also reported sexual misconduct claims against other Google executives.

Organisers of the walkout encouraged employees and contractors to leave a flyer on the desk reading: “I’m not at my desk because I’m walking out in solidarity with other Googlers and contractors to protest [against] sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency and a workplace culture that’s not working for everyone.”

The formal demands made of Google by their workforce included:

  1. An end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination.
  2. A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequality.
  3. A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.
  4. A clear, uniform globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.

The protest is yet another reminder that however big and powerful a company is, it cannot ride roughshod over laws designed to protect equality and discrimination, nor try to bury sexual harassment allegations. This is something I wrote about recently in my blog, Is your business set up to deal with a sexual harassment claim? The importance of businesses having a process in place to deal with sexual harassment allegations cannot be overstated.

I admit I am surprised that these allegations have been made against Google, one of those apparently progressive companies you think of as placing huge importance on the wellbeing of its staff. It seems that when it comes down to it, Google really is no different to most other large corporates.

What is more surprising still is that group action of this kind has taken place at Google at all. A recent article in the New York Times sums up the cult of the individual that has driven the growth of Google and other tech giants: “For decades, Silicon Valley has been ground zero for a vaguely utopian form of individualism — the idea that a single engineer with a laptop and an internet connection could change the world, or at least a long-established industry. Class consciousness was passé. Unions were the enemy of innovation, an anchor to the status quo.”

The walkout is evidence that this is about to change. “This is part of a growing movement,” the Google walkout organisers wrote in a news release, “not just in tech, but across the country, including teachers, fast-food workers and others who are using their strength in numbers to make real change.”

Where once it was unions that flexed their muscles against seemingly all-powerful corporates, now it is mass demonstration. I expect there to be far more of this type of protest, demanding that companies are held to account for their actions and those of their directors and employees. This will especially be the case when they involve allegations of misconduct people are, quite rightly, no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to such as sexual misconduct, racism and discrimination.

In the meantime, if you have any queries in relation to a sexual harassment, discrimination or racism issue or an NDA, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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