Why the Google Walkout Could Be a Turning Point for Tech


At 11 A.M. on Thursday, nearly 17,000 Google employees stopped what they were doing and walked out of their offices. Gathering in Dublin and Singapore, in Tokyo and Hyderabad and London, in Manhattan and Boulder and Atlanta and in Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, they held signs that said things like, “HAPPY TO QUIT FOR $90M—NO SEXUAL HARASSMENT REQUIRED,” and, “What do I do at Google? I work hard every day so the company can afford $90,000,000 payouts to execs who sexually harass my co-workers.”

The protest, sparked by a New York Times report outlining how Google had systemically allowed senior executives accused of sexual misconduct to leave the company with massive severance packages, was accompanied by a list of demands. Together, the walkout organizers are asking for an end to forced arbitration in cases of discrimination and harassment; a commitment from Google to end pay and opportunity inequity at all levels; a public sexual harassment transparency report, which would list the number and type of harassment claims at the company; a “clear, uniform, globally inclusive process” for reporting sexual misconduct “safely and anonymously”; and two changes to the corporate hierarchy and board structure: the promotion of the chief diversity office to answer directly to Google C.E.O. Sundar Pichai, and the appointment of an employee representative to the board of directors. “All employees and contract workers across the company deserve to be safe,” the organizers wrote in an essay for the Cut. “Sadly, the executive team has demonstrated through their lack of meaningful action that our safety is not a priority. We’ve waited for leadership to fix these problems, but have come to this conclusion: no one is going to do it for us.”

While meeting some of these demands will require systemic change—it’s easy for Google to say it will end pay inequity for its 85,050-odd employees, but making that promise a reality will likely take time—many of their requests are actionable. Microsoft, for instance, ended mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment and assault cases (a popular practice among Silicon Valley companies) in December 2017, and Uber did the same in May. “The silencing of people’s voices has clearly had an impact in perpetuating sexual harassment,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, told The New York Times at the time. Dozens of groups, including the A.C.L.U., NAACP, and the Economic Policy Institute, have since called on other major tech companies to follow suit.

Other of the organizers’ proposals may constitute a heavier lift, but there’s no question that Google has the money, manpower, and resources to implement them. Having Google’s chief diversity officer report directly to the C.E.O. seems like an easy enough bureaucratic fix, and appointing an employee representative to the board of directors is already done in countries like Germany, where corporate governance is different than it is in the United States. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a plan in the U.S. to add worker representation to company boards, too.

Organizers’ savvy use of social and mainstream media to amplify their demands has forced Google’s top brass to respond. In public, Pichai has seemed amenable to the cause—he threw his support behind the walkout before it occurred, and endorsed the movement again onstage at a DealBook conference on Thursday. “Moments like this show that we didn’t always get it right,” he said, “and so we are committed to doing better.” From a P.R. standpoint, Pichai has plenty of reason to continue to support the movement—this year alone, Google’s employees have revolted at the company’s participation in Project Maven, an initiative to help the Department of Defense analyze drone footage (Google eventually said it had discontinued its Pentagon contract), and bristled at “Dragonfly,” the code name for a censored search engine in China. If Pichai can alleviate concerns on one front, he may find that the scrutiny diminishes for a time on others. Compared with hypothetical Pentagon contracts and continued exploration into China, one of the most potentially lucrative markets in the world, Google may find that meeting walkout organizers’ demands is the least financially invasive option.

And of course, if Pichai doesn’t implement change to an extent that satisfies protesters, there’s a non-zero chance he’ll have a full-scale riot on his hands. As one Google employee told me earlier this week, “For me, it feels like everything’s hit a boiling point. First there was pushback to Project Maven and the China search project. The frustration reached a new level.”

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