The Demands of the Google Walkout Explained

On Thursday, thousands of Google employees walked out on their jobs to protest how the tech giant handles sexual harassment complaints. The organizers, Claire Stapleton, Tanuja Gupta, Meredith Whittaker, Celie O’Neil-Hart, Stephanie Parker, Erica Anderson, and Amr Gaber, made their demands known at The Cut

Unlike the coal miners in the 1800s, every Google employee could find a new job and walk away. And there are literally millions of people who apply to work there every year and would happily take these jobs without Google conceding a single point. This puts Google in a much stronger position than these employees think. But, let’s go through the demands and talk about what would really happen in this situation.

1. An end to Forced Arbitration. 

Forced arbitration is unpopular–and for good reason. Arbitration is decidedly pro-employer. Employees who do recover in arbitration receive substantially less money than those who win in court, at least according to one study. However, going to court is risky and can be terribly expensive for both sides. While you might win the jackpot if you win a court case, you also may face a company who is far more willing to fight in order to prevent that jackpot and to prevent others from deciding to sue as well. 

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of forced arbitration in Epic Systems Corp. v Lewis, so abandoning forced arbitration is unlikely to happen any time soon. The company has too much to lose and little to gain. 

The demands that people be allowed a witness is common in unionized organizations, where employees are allowed a union rep. This may be something the employees can win on. However, the chances of Google being able to swiftly deal with a sexual harassment case decreases if an employee is allowed to bring her attorney to any meetings. A co-worker or employee representative is much more likely to be allowed.

2. A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity.

Importantly, this is not about fairness in opportunity, even though they use the phrase “opportunity inequity” this is about fairness in the outcome. They want, specifically,  “women of color at all levels of the organization.” Sounds lovely, but there simply aren’t as many women of color who want to do and are qualified for tech jobs as there are other people. When you demand women of color at every level, you’re seriously lowering the possibilities. This demand, if met, would require promotions and hiring based on skin color and gender rather than merit. Not something a smart company wants to do. It’s also illegal under federal law.

They also demand data on pay. As a supporter of transparency in pay, I can get behind this. But, I also give a caution–the employees may not like it when they see it. Once that data goes public within the company, it’s likely someone will leak it to the internet. Google employees will lose public support when it’s clear that the people whining about unfair pay are earning more than most people.

Internally, even with the data “masked” if you break it down far enough, employees will be able to figure out which line of data matches which co-worker. While I’m not opposed to that–it certainly keeps managers honest at raise time–Google employees should make sure that is what they want.

All the additional information, such as information on leaves of absences puts you into dicey privacy issues. While the organizers are probably thinking along the lines of seeing how having a baby impacts one’s career, people take leaves of absence for many other medical and personal reasons. Google would be wise to keep limits that could possibly expose confidential medical issues.

3. A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.

This sounds great! After all, this walkout was prompted by the $90 million severance package paid out to Andy Rubin, after he was accused of sexual harassment. Google admitted Rubin wasn’t the only person to leave–48 other people have been fired for sexual misconduct over the past two years.

However, if you start to include names on this report, you’ll find people far less willing to simply take severance packages and walk away. Rubin claims he’s innocent. Naturally, given his status, his departure was never going to remain confidential. A junior-level person, though, may not be willing to walk away quietly without a fight. And that means accusers’ names will come out as well. They would be wise to think through unintended consequences. 

If your goal is to punish and shame, transparent harassment reports are the way to go. If your goal is to get the harassers out of the company, confidentiality may be better. 

4. A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct.

This demand is something every company, big or small, should implement. It should be simple for any employee, intern, or contractor, to file a complaint. There’s no reason a technologically advanced company like Google shouldn’t have this up and running.

That said, a reporting tool is only as good as the people using it. And it’s critical that all reports are thoroughly investigated.

5. Promote the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO  and appoint an Employee Representative to the Board.

These are demands that sound good on paper, but aren’t really something that plays out. A Chief Diversity Officer doesn’t have an equivalent role to the Chief Marketing Officer or the Chief Financial Officer. Elevating the position doesn’t change that. It’s important to remember the goal of the business is to be profitable–not to be diverse. And, for what it’s worth, universities have found that pouring money into diversity officers don’t actually increase faculty diversity. What does work is encouraging minorities to enroll in Ph.D. programs. 

Likewise, Google doesn’t create the tech ready workforce. The universities do. And the universities don’t create students ready to learn, the public schools do. If Google were interested in increasing minority representation they would put money into public schools. 

In a company the size of Google, an employee representative won’t be the solution that they expect. A single person to represent the employees is something that signals virtue but doesn’t likely help anything.

Even if Google concedes to all these demands (which they won’t) the changes will be superficial. 

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