Professionalism/The Google Walkouts of 2018
On November 1, 2018, more than 20,000 Google employees walked out of their offices in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations, sparking a growing wave of protests among tech workers.
Former Google executive Andy Rubin is perhaps best known for founding Android in 2003. After working at Google for over a decade, Rubin left to start a tech incubator in 2014. His reason for leaving was unknown for several years. In 2018, the New York Times wrote a scathing article revealing Rubin was let go amid a sexual assault investigation, receiving a severance package of $90 million plus another $150 million in stock. The allegations were not confirmed when Rubin was let go, but they were credible enough that Google asked for Rubin's resignation; he did not volunteer to step down. Since then, Rubin's main goals have been to save his career and reputation by denying allegations and shifting blame.
As one of the five largest tech companies in the world, Google has many eyes watching it. Accordingly, Google makes a point to publicly denounce any workplace harassment or retaliation, and holds publicly available policies to deal with them. However, some employees doubt that Google has honored these policies, and many have personally experienced policy violations. This was exacerbated by workers having little protection from Google. Because Google is incredibly careful with its image, they wanted to push the Rubin scandal under the rug. This may be why they gave him such a generous exit package and continued to praise him as if he had not caused any damage.
Many employees were already unhappy with Google’s response to past abuse allegations, so news of Rubin’s hushed severance package was the final straw. In less than seven days, Google employees Claire Stapleton, Tanuja Gupta, Meredith Whittaker, Celie O'Neil-Hart, Stephanie Parker, Erica Anderson, and Amr Gaber organized the Walkout, demanding "an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture” in tech.
Discontent had been simmering at Google for some time, but ultimately, the company's dealing with Rubin led to the Walkout. Some employees felt that Google had "a workplace culture that has turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and discrimination." Rubin's case coming to light urged others to come forward, and the collective discontent was enough to spark the Walkout.
The Google Walkout occurred on November 1, 2018, at 11:10 am local time in each of 50 cities around the world. More than 20,000 Google employees participated by leaving their desks and gathering outside of their buildings for part of the day. Many carried signs protesting Google's handling of harassment, with messages like, "Happy to quit for $90 million, no sexual harassment required." Reactions to the event were mixed but mostly positive. Many felt that the event was an "inspiring experience" and "a strong, united stance against inequality." Others were less convinced of the event's impact, or felt that it only appeared united due to "peer pressure."
The Walkout organizers demanded five changes from Google. First and foremost, they demanded "an end to forced arbitration." Under forced arbitration, harassed employees must settle disputes via a privately-hired arbitrator, who may be more likely to rule in favor of the company. The organizers also demanded "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, … [and to] promote the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and … appoint an Employee Representative to the Board."
Google's (specifically, Google management's) initial response was to visibly and publicly support the Walkout. CEO Sundar Pichai initially praised the Walkout, and encouraged employees to participate. Just one week after the event, Google released a memo addressing the organizers' demands and detailing their preliminary response. Most notably, they agreed to make forced arbitration completely optional. The Walkout caused this change directly, confirming that protest can be an effective vehicle for change. Google met most of the other demands partially, although they did not promote the Chief Diversity Officer or appoint an employee representative to the board.
Over time, it became clearer that Google's initial support was less out of a long-term conviction to support activism and more out of a short-term responsibility to protect their public image. Four of the seven Walkout organizers felt compelled to leave the company in the first year after the Walkout. Claire Stapleton decided to quit after she stopped getting included in meetings and some of her responsibilities were transferred to others. Meredith Whittaker also quit after she was asked to stop her work on AI ethics. These women were not explicitly demoted or fired; management preferred to shift their power away subtly, thereby avoiding negative attention. Google hired anti-unionization firm IRI Consultants a year after the Walkout, further confirming the company's motivation to disempower employee activists who could tarnish its image.
In January 2019, Alphabet (Google's parent company) was sued by a few large shareholders, claiming that Alphabet had violated its fiduciary responsibility, or its obligation to act in the interest of their investors, by engaging in the same behavior that led to the Walkout. The shareholders claimed that Google violated its own Code of Conduct, including a "no retaliation" clause. The lawsuit hinged on the idea that Google's reputation is valuable and was compromised by Google management's actions. While the protesters would have identified Rubin and others as professionally or morally problematic, the prosecution identified them as financially problematic.
In August 2020, Alphabet agreed to settle the lawsuit, which included a $310 million agreement to diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives. Some, including former Google employee Timnit Gebru, have criticized these initiatives. The settlement also included a clause to end severance packages for anyone terminated for sexual misconduct (such as Rubin).
Judge Walsh, who signed off on the settlement, praised it as a credit to what lawyers can do to "address sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, discrimination, retaliation, inequity and inclusion in the workplace."
Ethics and ProfessionalismEdit
Google's Professionalism and the Implications of the SettlementEdit
Ever since Google went public in 2004, it has had a fiduciary responsibility. By law, Google's version of Aristotle's The Good must be to maximize shareholder welfare. The lawsuit reminded Google that its public image is a crucial sub-good.
Google feared media attention and litigation when firing executives: "When Google fires lower-level employees, it typically marches them out immediately and pays little, if any, severance. But for senior executives, Google weighs other factors. A wrongful termination lawsuit could mean unwanted media attention for Google and the victims of a misconduct case, with a loss resulting in significant damages." Part of the separation agreement "precluded Mr. Rubin from working for rivals or disparaging Google publicly." Rubin repeatedly violated Google's Code of Conduct. Google had an opportunity to fully explain its rationale in a legal setting via the lawsuit filed against them. What seems unethical to protesters and financially wasteful to shareholders might have been explained by private legal bindings or some other obligation. By settling out of court, Google avoids a public explanation, leaving critics to speculate. This does not imply that the company concedes the claims. But, if Google is unable or unwilling to explain its decisions when criticized, then it continues to sacrifice employee, shareholder, and customer confidence.
In an effort to keep expensive negative press away, Google allowed a problematic corporate culture to fester and grow, delaying the inevitable uproar and culminating in the 2018 Walkout. Google risked its long-term reputation and company culture to avoid short-term bad press about one of its most valuable employees, and it failed. It lost money and worsened its reputation, both steps away from The Good for Google.
The Protesters and Organizers and Their InfluenceEdit
Admittedly, some protesters may have just felt pressured by their peers. But ultimately, all participants risked their Google careers when they walked out and spoke out against Google management. They valued their profession over their career. The protesters exemplified professionalism by pushing for change in Google policies and inspiring others, like shareholders, to speak out in their own way. Their efforts produced real change at Google, and their example inspired more walkouts and demonstrations, not only at Google but also at Amazon and Microsoft.
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