Over 20,000 employees in an estimated 50 cities worldwide walked out of their Google offices on November 1st in protest over the company’s poor management of workplace harassment claims. It was a stunning example of employee solidarity and workers taking control over their workplace culture—they created a media frenzy and challenged the company to meet their bold demands.
The catalyst for the protests was a New York Times article that revealed a top executive had been offered an exit package of $90 million and was given a “hero’s farewell.” No mention was made at the time of his departure, however, that he was leaving because a credible sexual harassment complaint had been lodged against him. Likewise, another senior executive accused of harassment had also been provided a cushy departure, while a third was allowed to remain at the company. Google leaders attempted to deflect criticism by claiming 48 people were fired for sexual harassment over the last 2 years, and none of them had received a separation package.
Yet there were additional revelations: once Google learned that a senior male legal official was carrying on an affair with one of his female subordinates, the company pushed the woman out, while the man continued to flourish at the company. In another incident, a female applicant faced sexual harassment during the interview process. After declining the hiring manager’s advances, she didn’t get the job. Google eventually admitted the woman’s account was “more likely than not” true. Nevertheless, she said the company asked her to remain quiet.
Photo Credit: Google Walkout for Change (Twitter)
These experiences resonated deeply with many Google employees. The leaders of the walkout wrote, “The [ Times] article provided a narrow window into a culture we, as Google employees, know well. These stories are our stories. We share them in hushed tones to trusted peers, friends, and partners. There are thousands of us, at every level of the company. And we’ve had enough.”
In response, Google employees did something unexpected: they took to the streets, dubbing their collective action the Google Walkout for Real Change. And they took their protest around the world: employees began demonstrating for cultural change in Singapore, followed by such cities as Haifa, Dublin, London, and Zurich, eventually hitting the company’s global headquarters in Mountain View, CA.
The Google walkout was a coordinated, collective effort including in-person and online participation. Its participants came from every rung of the job ladder and spanned great geographic distance, demonstrating solidarity among workers of an international magnitude. In fact, the sort of mass worker mobilization that Google employees accomplished is rarely seen, especially on a global level.
Employees oftentimes lack a sense of solidarity due to fear of management, and attacks on the labor movement in recent decades haven’t made employee cohesion any easier—a context that makes the workers’ coordinated walkout particularly striking. That so many employees interrupted work, protested, and helped garner media attention is a testament to their passionate and creative commitment to one other. This point was recently recognized by the Times, which views the walkout’s underlying ethic of solidarity as a strong repudiation of the individualist mentality so common in Silicon Valley.
But what exactly did the protesting workers want? The leaders of the walkout demanded various changes that could ensure long-term cultural shifts at Google, centered on transparency, fairness, and accountability—but also control.
First they called for “an end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination.” This measure was popularized in the midst of the #MeToo movement by former FOX News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who revealed to Americans that many employers use mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements to keep sexual harassment litigation out of the public eye.
The walkout leaders also insisted that workers be allowed to bring a representative of their choice to any meetings with human resources (HR) representatives, and that the Chief Diversity Officer report directly to the CEO and Board of Directors. They additionally appealed for an end to “pay and opportunity inequity” within the company.
Knowing that with data comes power, they also requested a regular account of all internal sexual harassment claims, including how many victims and accused harassers have left as a result. It could almost be dubbed a “Google Analytics Report of Workplace Harassment,” with Google’s own employment practices serving as the data to be mined.
The most striking demands, however, were those related to taking ownership, in the sense of assuming shared control, of the company. The protesting employees already took control of the narrative. Now they want some ability to determine policy-making and implementation.
The organizers of the Google Walkout for Real Change identified a perennial conundrum employees find themselves in: they might want to bring concerns about executive leadership to HR, but HR itself is subordinate to those executives, rendering it less likely to push for change. HR, the organizers wrote, “put[s] management’s interest ahead of employees reporting harassment and discrimination.” As a corrective, the employees requested a safe and anonymous process for reporting sexual misconduct that would cover every worker, from full-time employees to independent contractors. They want to ensure independent investigations and determinations by taking control out of the hands of company management and HR and placing it elsewhere, perhaps in the stewardship of a specialized third party.
The organizers’ final demand strikes at the heart of company control—the Board of Directors. The walkout leaders want an Employee Representative seated on the Board who would exercise some shared control of the company’s affairs. This Representative would help ensure the other demands are realized, thereby increasing accountability, transparency, and fairness. Seeing one of their own on the Board would likely boost employee morale and trust in the leadership. It would also help Google retain and recruit good talent.
After enduring pressure from its own employees and withering media coverage, Google responded exactly one week after the walkout. Company leaders decided to nix mandatory arbitration and make it optional, following the example of Microsoft and Uber. Facebook followed suit the next day. It seems Google employees not only succeeded in creating change for themselves, but for other tech workers, too. Critics have pointed out, however, that arbitration is option only for sexual harassment and assault claims; claims of discrimination based on sex, religion, disability, etc. still appear to be subject to arbitration.
Employees won concessions on several other demands as well. Google agreed to publish a report on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and will allow employees to bring a colleague to HR when reporting misconduct or participating in an investigation. It has also pledged to increase diversity representation and retention efforts and create an HR team devoted to investigation harassment and discrimination within the company.
Conspicuously absent from Google’s response was a firm commitment to pay equity, arranging for the Chief Diversity Officer to report to the CEO, or any mention of an Employee Representative sitting on the Board of Directors. These shortcomings, in some employees’ eyes, render Google’s overall response “absolutely insufficient.”
“We aren’t just employees; we’re owners.”
Even if it hasn’t been 100% successful, the walkout forced Google to make major changes to its workplace policies in only one week’s time, signaling a shift in employer-employee dynamics: workers will no longer remain silent when management refuses to mete out appropriate consequences to bad actors, or worse, handsomely rewards them. “From the moment we start at Google,” wrote the walkout leaders, “we’re told that we aren’t just employees; we’re owners.” It seems that employees have begun to take that message seriously—and so has management.
Not every workplace can be Google, and perhaps the worldwide protest didn’t go far enough. But the walkout did make one lesson abundantly clear: employees do hold power when they act together. They have the power to take control over their work culture and change it for the better. According to the walkout leaders, “A company is nothing without its workers…Every person who walked out today is an owner, and the owners say: Time’s Up.”
Perhaps the innovative employees of Google so well known for creating our technological futures are currently engineering the workplace of the future: one of collaborative solidarity and increased employee control.
To read follow-up coverage of the May 2019 Google Sit-In, organized by employees to protest retaliation they experienced for participating in the Walkout, click here.