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Google announces changes to sexual harassment policies after global employee walkout

The company is meeting some, though not all, of its employees’ demands.

Google employees at its European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, join others from around the world walking out of their offices in protest over claims of sexual harassment, gender inequality and systemic racism at the tech giant.
Google employees in Dublin joined about 20,000 others around the world who walked out of their offices on November 1, 2018, to protest claims of sexual harassment, gender inequality, and systemic racism at the tech giant.
Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images

Google just announced a series of sweeping changes to how the company will handle sexual harassment complaints, following a high-profile global employee walkout last week.

In an email to employees on Thursday, CEO Sundar Pichai apologized for how the company handled a series of sexual harassment complaints against company executives.

“We recognize that we have not always gotten everything right in the past and we are sincerely sorry for that. It’s clear we need to make some changes,” Pichai wrote in the email, which was also published on the company’s website.

The announcement follows a massive employee backlash that erupted last month in response to a New York Times article detailing how Google paid millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of sexual harassment, while staying silent about the misconduct.

That included a $90 million payout in 2014 to Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android phone, who allegedly coerced a female subordinate into performing oral sex on him. (Rubin denies it, though a Google investigation found the claim credible.)

On November 1, about 20,000 Google employees and contractors in 50 cities around the world walked off the job in a coordinated protest. They started at Google’s offices in Tokyo, then Singapore, before staging massive walkouts across Europe and the East Coast of the United States.

The walkouts, which made headlines all over the world, reflect increasing internal frustration with Google’s corporate culture. Employees have complained about rampant sexism, racism, unethical government contracts, and a general lack of transparency within the company. Workers who organized the walkout made five specific demands to Google executives to “end the sexual harassment, discrimination, and the systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture.”

The changes announced on Thursday address some, though not all, of those demands.

What employees asked for, and what Google plans to do

1) Employees asked Google executives to stop forcing workers to take harassment and discrimination claims to private arbitration.

Many employers, like Google, force new hires to sign a form in which they agree to resolve all legal disputes outside the court system, through a process known as private arbitration. In signing these clauses, workers essentially waive their right to sue the company for potentially violating the law, whether it’s related to sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or stealing their wages.

Instead, workers must take their claims to private arbitration, a quasi-legal forum with no judge, no jury, and nearly zero government oversight. Under this process, workers are less likely to win their cases. When they do win, they tend to get much less money than they would in court.

What Google is doing: The company will no longer force employees to take sexual harassment or sexual assault claims to private arbitration. However, the policy does not seem to include other forms of discrimination as employees requested, such as racial or gender discrimination.

2) Employees asked for a commitment from Google to end pay and opportunity inequity.

Women at Google have repeatedly complained about persistent pay gaps at the company. Four women who worked at Google are currently suing the tech giant for violating equal pay laws, arguing that the company paid women less than men for the same work, assigned them to lower-paying jobs, and promoted them less often (this was before the mandatory arbitration policy was enacted).

Google has denied those allegations, but the US Labor Department’s findings seem to support the women’s claims. Auditors for DOL said they found “systemic compensation disparities against women” across the entire company. The agency is investigating the company’s pay practices as part of a routine pay audit it performs on federal contractors.

What Google is doing: The new action plan doesn't mention anything specific about pay equity. But the company said it will focus on “improving representation — through hiring, progression and retention — and creating a more inclusive culture for everyone.”

That includes a promise to have a diverse slate of candidates on the interview shortlist for high-level positions, with limited exceptions.

3) Employees asked for a public report on the number of sexual harassment complaints made against Google employees and the outcomes of those claims.

What Google is doing: The company said it will include more details involving sexual harassment allegations in its investigation reports, which are made public.

The new information will include the number of substantiated or partially substantiated complaints over time. It will also include trends, disciplinary actions taken, and details about what types of employee behavior are considered fireable offenses.

4) Employees asked for a clear process to report sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.

What Google is doing: The company outlined a lot of changes related to this, which you can read for yourself here. In summary:

We’re overhauling our reporting channels by bringing them together on one dedicated site and including live support. We will enhance the processes we use to handle concerns—including the ability for Googlers to be accompanied by a support person. And we will offer extra care and resources for Googlers during and after the process. This includes extended counseling and career support.

Employees who do not take the company’s mandatory sexual harassment training will be penalized in their performance evaluations.

5) Employees want Google’s chief diversity officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the board of directors at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and they want to appoint an employee representative to the board.

What Google is doing: The company’s policy appears the same on this front. Google says that the diversity officer will continue to lead monthly discussions with the CEO and other executives, but says nothing about reporting directly to Pichai. The diversity officer will also continue to make recommendations directly to the board of directors through the Leadership Development and Compensation Committee. The company did not address the request to appoint an employee representative to the company’s board of directors.

Even though Google’s announcement doesn’t meet all employee demands, it’s a clear sign that tech workers are making some progress in their effort to hold Silicon Valley tech giants accountable.