Google has long prided itself on its unconventional culture and generous perks to convey the message that the company, from its products to its ambitions, was exceptional. And for years, employees bought in.
On Thursday, however, workers of the
unit who took part in a walkout at the company’s offices around the world signaled a crisis in faith—one that, if widespread, could cause reputational harm, potentially affecting Google’s standing as an aspirational workplace, risk experts and analysts said.
“I definitely thought Google was a company that was holding itself to a higher moral standard,” said Jon Cohen, a 28-year-old Google software engineer in New York, who took part in Thursday’s protest. “The last year or so, it’s just been shown to be untrue.”
Recent employee activism at Google has been in response to a New York Times article last week, which detailed how the company 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.
Employees said they were protesting a workplace culture they felt protected perpetrators of sexual misconduct. Many voiced anger and disappointment in a company they once thought was different from other big corporations.
Mr. Cohen and others also have taken issue with the company’s efforts to work with the Chinese government to build a censored search engine.
That has added to his anger, he said. Suddenly, Google was “not being the kind of company that I thought it was when I joined it,” Mr. Cohen said.
Organizers asked the company to improve transparency in the reporting and handling of sexual misconduct, “end pay and opportunity inequity,” and elevate the role of the chief diversity officer.
How Google responds is critical for a company “built on human capital and nothing else,” said John Wilson, Cornerstone Capital Group’s head of research and corporate governance.
“Google hires people who can work anywhere,” he said. “So if employees don’t trust the company will have their backs, it will impact Google’s ability to attract, retain and motivate employees.”
When asked for comment, Google sent a video of an interview with Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai.
“At Google we set a very, very high bar and we clearly didn’t live up to our expectations,” he said in the interview, which was conducted Thursday at a New York Times conference. “And which is why we felt it was important to express our support for the employees today.
“And the first step you take in these things is to acknowledge and apologize for past actions, for the pain they caused,” he added.
The spotlight on Google is particularly bright because the company has made its culture such a significant part of its allure, said Anthony Johndrow, chief executive of consultancy Reputation Economy Advisors.
“They built this mythology as being this great place to work and used that to build their external reputation,” Mr. Johndrow said. “You need to get it right in-house first, and that is coming home to bite them pretty hard.”
The situation highlights how crucial internal reputation can be to a company. A recent study by management consulting company
PLC calculated a perceived material loss of trust from stakeholders, including employees, had cost more than half of the companies analyzed as much as $180 billion in revenue.
“If you want a high performance culture, you need a high trust culture,” Mr. Wilson said. “Ultimately, there has to be trust in the people you work with every day with and that starts at the top.”
He added: “Any sign that the company is mistreating its employees will impact that trust. Consumers are buying an image as much as a product. We’re talking about a company whose motto is: ‘Don’t be evil.’”
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. But he acknowledged at Thursday’s protest in New York that there was “widespread frustration and deep-seated anger” in the ranks.
“I hope this gives us momentum,” he said. “If all we did was stand around for an hour and nothing changes it would not be worth it. This is an important priority.”
Write to Ezequiel Minaya at email@example.com