The Google Walkout to Protest Sexual Harassment: How Change Is Happening in Silicon Valley

An amazing thing happened on November 1, 2018: twenty thousand Google employees staged a walkout all around the globe, spurring on real change in Silicon Valley. How did the walkout happen? Daisuke Wakabayashi, Erin Griffith, Amie Tsang, and Kate Conger of the New York Times report that Google employees organized the walkout in less than one week to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment. Employee discontent had been simmering for quite some time over the inequitable treatment of female employees, but it boiled over when the New York Times reported that Google had given an executive, Andy Rubin, a $90 million exit package after finding sexual harassment claims against him credible. The release of this information led to calls for a walkout. Demands for change in how Google handles sexual harassment included the following:

  • End the use of forced arbitration, which silences victims and protects abusers.
  • Publish a transparency report on cases of sexual harassment.
  • Further disclose salaries and compensation.
  • Ensure employee representation on the company board.
  • Appoint a chief diversity officer who speaks directly to the board.

Noam Scheiber writes that the most remarkable aspect of the Google walkout was the way the organizers identified their action with a broader movement throughout the United States including teachers, fast-food workers, and others. The tech sector has never before identified with unions or unionized workers because compensation in the field is relatively high. While Google has methods in place to allow employees to communicate with senior management, Scheiber notes that some tech employees have come to realize that having a platform for the unregulated exchange of ideas does not result in lasting change. They have now experienced the sense of agency and power to affect decision making that can come when twenty thousand people walk out of a company together, impacting productivity and the organization’s reputation. Because competition for talent is fierce in Silicon Valley, a walkout can negatively impact an organization’s ability to recruit, putting other tech companies on notice as well. Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times notes that protests are now an important avenue for pressure that is likely to create lasting change in Silicon Valley and the technology sector.

On November 8, 2018, Conger and Wakabayashi reported (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/08/technology/google-arbitration-sexual-harassment.html) that Google agreed to the following:

  • End the practice of forced arbitration.
  • Overhaul reporting practices for sexual harassment.
  • Provide more transparency.

Facebook followed Google’s lead and dropped mandatory arbitration clauses one day after the Google walkout.

Why do these changes matter? Wakabayashi and Jessica Silver-Greenberg of the New York Times explain that until now, harassment has often gone unpunished due to forced arbitration clauses included in the fine print of most employment contracts. As a result, claims are kept secret to protect the abusers and the company’s reputation. Victims receive smaller settlements than would be the case in open court, and harassers can easily move to other jobs without warning to future victims. In this way, companies keep their employees and the public in the dark about bad behavior.

Arbitration clauses were put in place to prevent employees and customers from banding together in class-action lawsuits to fight deep-pocketed corporations over unfair business and labor practices. While the focus at the moment is on sexual harassment and assault claims, these arbitration clauses exist in the fine print of contracts of all sorts. But class-action lawsuits and protests are the best ways to bring pressure for change. Microsoft and Uber both changed their policies on forced arbitration clauses earlier this year after facing proposed class-action suits from women. Apple, reading the tea leaves of change, also eliminated the clause from employment contracts a few months ago.

Collective action is an important avenue for change. It is good to see Silicon Valley employees discovering the power that they have to create more ethical and inclusive organizations.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at www.annelitwin.com on December 10, 2018.

Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together', OD Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Workshop Trainer