On November 1, 2018, thousands of Google employees from around the world – including in Canada – engaged in a coordinated walkout, leaving their respective offices to protest workplace harassment and inequality at the company. The impetus for the walkout was a recent news story that revealed in 2014 a female employee had raised sexual misconduct allegations against former Senior Vice-President Andy Rubin, and in response, Google had given Rubin a $90 million exit package. It is reported that Google provided this exit package despite determining at the time that the allegations against him were credible.
In advance of the walkout, the organizers published a list calling for the following changes:
- Ending forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination
- A commitment to ending pay and opportunity inequity
- A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report
- A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct
- Promoting the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and appoint an Employee Representative to the Board
In response to the protest, Google has quickly begun implementing new rules surrounding sexual misconduct claims. Private arbitration will be optional for individual sexual misconduct claims, meaning employees may pursue such claims in court; the company’s mandatory sexual harassment training will be updated and expanded; and the company will implement a dedicated platform for reporting sexual misconduct claims, offering counselling and support.
Discontent breeds action…by employees – Employers need to have their ears to the ground about employee morale and reaction. Proactive employers may be able to avoid a mutiny. Rather than simply reacting to specific employee complaints, employers need to anticipate concerns given the current social climate, review historic actions and trends and plan for old skeletons to come out of the closet. An employer with a sophisticated HR/ER group should not be caught flat-footed by employee backlash on the scale of the Google walkout.
Don’t be afraid to discipline problem employees – Gone are the days of tolerating the bad behaviour of rainmaking employees. The risk/reward analysis has clearly shifted in the #MeToo era. Employers should weigh the risk of keeping problem employees in the workplace, especially those found to have engaged in sexual misconduct. There must be an overhaul as to how HR/ER assesses the impact of retention on employee morale, the employer’s brand and the employer’s wallet.
100% confidentiality is not guaranteed – While confidentiality is paramount in settlement agreements, it is impossible to fully guarantee that a settlement, and the allegations that gave rise to that settlement, will remain confidential. As much as possible, employers should act to prevent problematic conduct, and avoid having to enter into such settlement agreements in the first place. They should also anticipate the impact of a breach of confidentiality and have an action plan to address it.
Recognize the brand value of well-developed HR practices – Underdeveloped HR practices may lead to an alienated and dissatisfied workforce. If employees choose to publicly air such complaints, it may amplify any negative backlash and cause the public to attribute an individual employee’s misdeeds to the company as a whole. Employers should implement and enforce HR practices that are responsive to employee needs and concerns and promote a cohesive team, with the goal of keeping and addressing issues in-house.
By Chetan Muram, Associate
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