Thousands of Google employees around the world staged a series of walkouts Thursday to protest a workplace culture that they say promotes and protects perpetrators of sexual harassment at the tech giant.
The organizers of the walkout published a letter demanding the company change its policies to make it safer for women to report instances of sexual harassment and to bolster the transparency of those reports.
“There are thousands of us, at every level of the company,” the letter said. “And we’ve had enough.”
The protests marked perhaps the largest display of employee activism concerning sexual harassment in a year in which the issue has come to the fore at companies world-wide. The events were also striking, given they occurred at a company that has long been considered at the leading edge of efforts to empower and support employees through generous perks and a permissive stance toward internal disagreements.
Google more recently, though, has had to take steps to rein in workplace debate, which at times led to lower productivity, the company said.
Employee activism at Google is rising lately in response to a New York Times article last week on how the
unit protected three senior executives over the past decade after they were accused of sexual misconduct, including one who received a $90 million exit package in 2014. Google declined to comment on details in the Times story.
tolga akmen/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Photos of the walkout flooded social media on Thursday, as Google employees filled the streets outside of offices from Mumbai to Dublin.
The largest crowds were at Google’s main campus in Mountain View, Calif., where thousands of employees encircled a stage. There, organizers of the walkout thanked the crowd and began leading chants. Many employees who gathered were quiet, continuing to check their phones and chat about work, but the atmosphere was punctuated by calls of “Time’s up!” and “Not OK!” News helicopters hovered overhead.
One employee told a story about how she was sexually harassed by her colleague, according to two people who heard the speech. The female employee described going to human resources to file a complaint, but was disappointed because HR didn’t take action, the people said. Her manager told her they would fire the person responsible if that person was “less important” than her, the speaker said.
In New York, throngs of Google employees filed out of glass doors at the company’s office in lower Manhattan.
They gathered at nearby Hudson River Park and wielded signs with slogans such as “Worker’s rights are women’s rights.”
Google employee Demma Rodriguez—38 years old and one of the organizers—told the crowd that workers wanted the tech company to live up to its potential as “the brain trust of the world.”
“I am fed up,” she said through a bullhorn. “Every single person here has the tools to change Google.”
At a New York Times conference on Thursday, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said the company was trying to address employee concerns. “Moments like this show we didn’t always get it right. We are listening to employees, which is why today is important,” he said. “Words alone aren’t enough, you have to follow up with actions.” He also said the company no longer makes payouts to employees who are accused of sexual harassment.
In their letter, employees demanded Google remove its mandatory-arbitration clauses from employee contracts, a widespread but controversial practice that prevents U.S. workers from suing their employer in open court. Companies prefer arbitration for sexual-harassment claims because it tends to lead to quicker settlements at a lower cost than class-action suits and may spare companies from bad publicity.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, corporations have come under greater public pressure to scrap their arbitration policies, said Steve Smith, communications director for the California Labor Federation, an umbrella group for state labor unions. “Companies are definitely seeing that this is bad for their image,” Mr. Smith said.
Uber Technologies Inc. and
in the past year both stopped requiring arbitration for sexually related claims.
The letter also asked that an employee representative be put on the board of directors and that the company’s chief diversity officer report to Mr. Pichai.
It is becoming more common for chief diversity officers to report directly to CEOs as companies try to stamp out harassment and make gender and racial promotion and pay equity a priority.
and NBCUniversal, a division of
, have chief diversity officers that report to the CEO rather than a chief people officer.
It isn’t common for employees to be represented on boards.
At Google—where employees this year have protested the company’s work with the Defense Department and the company’s controversial plan to explore a censored search engine for Chinese citizens—employee outrage over sexual-harassment policies has reached a boiling point.
In New York, Laura Rokita—a 31-year-old software engineer who has worked at Google for three years—said she was surprised and angry after reading the recent New York Times article that described how the company has dealt with sexual-harassment claims. She said she walked out Thursday to incite changes at the company and to support colleagues.
“When the article came out last week about some unfortunate events that happened in the past, a lot of Googlers were not happy about that,” Ms. Rokita said. “We want to see a difference in the future.”
Thomas Kneeland, a Google software engineer, said there is a sense among employees that they work at a special place with a mission to change the world, he said. But he acknowledged there was “widespread frustration and deep-seated anger” in the ranks.
“We can be exceptional moving forward,” Mr. Kneeland said. “It remains to be seen how.”
—Sarah E. Needleman contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
Laura Rokita is a software engineer at Google. An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect spelling of her name. (Nov. 1, 2018)