Google announces end of forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims

The tech giant is responding to protests over how it has handled accusations of sexual harassment. Can the company convince critics it’s serious about reform?

Google is following up on its promise to bring real change after demonstrators staged a worldwide protest against some of its employment practices.

Protesters had a list of demands, including an end to a common part of many employee contracts in tech: the arbitration clause. The clause forces employees who have a complaint against the company to settle out of court, effectively preventing victims of harassment or assault from speaking publicly.

Now, Google says it will end that practice, specifically for sexual harassment claims.

The New York Times reported:

Workers at Google had called for an end to arbitration, among other changes, as part of the walkout. The protest was prompted by a New York Times article last month that revealed the company had given a senior executive, Andy Rubin, a $90 million exit package even after it found he had been credibly accused of sexual harassment.

[Read about how Google protected Mr. Rubin, the “father of Android,” after he was accused of harassment. ]

The shift was announced at a delicate time for Google. Apart from the scrutiny over its workplace culture, employees have pushed back this year over issues like an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon and the company’s exploration of a plan to relaunch its search platform in China. The employee protests over harassment, which followed the #MeToo movement, have been Google’s largest and most public.

The news was announced via email to employees and shared in Google’s newsroom. CEO Sundar Pichai wrote:

Hi everyone,

At Google we try hard to build a workplace that supports our employees and empowers them to do their best work. As CEO, I take this responsibility very seriously and I’m committed to making the changes we need to improve. Over the past few weeks Google’s leaders and I have heard your feedback and have been moved by the stories you’ve shared.

We recognize that we have not always gotten everything right in the past and we are sincerely sorry for that. It’s clear we need to make some changes.

Going forward, we will provide more transparency on how we handle concerns. We’ll give better support and care to the people who raise them. And we will double down on our commitment to be a representative, equitable, and respectful workplace.

The company also created a detailed action plan outlining the steps it planned to take to change Google’s culture and increase transparency. It didn’t address other concerns, however.

The New York Times continued:

Mr. Pichai also said Google would overhaul its reporting process for harassment and assault, provide more transparency to employees about incidents reported to the company and dock employees in their performance reviews if they do not complete sexual harassment training.

The company did not address some other demands by workers, including that it make its internal report on harassment public and put an employee representative on the board. It did not include temporary workers, vendors and contractors in the changes. Google said it would still require suppliers to investigate complaints raised among contractors.

Some less obvious measures are being taken as well.

Business Insider reported:

Some of the new policies were items that the protesting workers had called for, like ending forced arbitration for employees who want to sue over harassment claims. But Google also included a new measure in its new list of policies that may catch some employees by surprise: a crackdown on alcohol at work and after-hours at all work-related functions.

The policy says that leaders who do not take steps to limit drinking at events will be on the hook, citing a statistic that says in 20% of Google’s reported sexual-harassment cases, alcohol played a role.

The policy also warns that Google “will impose more onerous actions if problems persist.” We take that to mean that Pichai may attempt to ban alcohol altogether.

The organizers of the Google Walkout protest acknowledged the moves Google was making, but said it hadn’t gone far enough to meet their demands.

They wrote in a blog post:

Today, Google made progress toward addressing these demands. The company followed Uber and Microsoft by eliminating forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment. It also committed to more transparency in sexual harassment reporting, and will allow workers to bring representatives to meetings with HR. We commend this progress, and the rapid action which brought it about.

However, the response ignored several of the core demands — like elevating the diversity officer and employee representation on the board — and troublingly erased those focused on racism, discrimination, and the structural inequity built into the modern day Jim Crow class system that separates ‘full time’ employees from contract workers. Contract workers make up more than half of Google’s workforce, and perform essential roles across the company, but receive few of the benefits associated with tech company employment. They are also largely people of color, immigrants, and people from working class backgrounds.

Other commenters agreed that Google hasn’t gone far enough.

Madison Malone Kircher wrote for New York magazine:

Are these updates good? Sure. And they are certainly better than nothing. But “better than nothing” isn’t really a victory. The changes aren’t nearly comprehensive enough and instead read like a list of things you’d have thought a so-called progressive company would already have implemented from the start, and not simply in response to scandal. And there’s something grossly infantilizing about the section of the announcement devoted to reminding Google employees that “the onus will be on leaders to take appropriate steps to restrict any excessive consumption among their teams.” “Harassment is never acceptable and alcohol is never an excuse,” the section (correctly) states at the outset, before delving into details on teams using drink tickets to limit alcohol consumption. As though the basic logic that you shouldn’t black out and harass or assault your coworkers shouldn’t be enough to keep Google employees from doing so.

What do you think of Google’s efforts to improve its reputation on treatment of sexual harassment? What other steps would you advise the company to take?

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