The Google brass wants to remind everyone who is in charge.
The company has been the subject of employee unrest, including pushback that nixed an AI technology deal with the Pentagon and, this week, a worldwide protest over Google’s response to sexual harassment within its ranks.
The outcry has shown the power that employees of the tech giant can wield—but executives are looking to take back control.
In a press conference after the #GoogleWalkout, CEO Sundar Pichai reasserted his authority.
“We don’t run the company by referendum,” Pichai said at a conference in New York on Thursday. “There are many good things about giving employees a lot of voice, out of that we have done well.”
The internal dynamics may appear chaotic to outsiders, but they’re not as intense as some have characterized them to be, he added.
Pichai did express sympathy for the protesters’ point of view.
“There’s anger and frustration within the company,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai today as thousands of employees of the tech giant around the globe walked off the job Thursday in protest over the way sexual harassment claims have been dealt with at the company. “We all feel it, I feel it.”
Pichai tried to position Google’s history as part of a national reckoning—and to deflect blame for the company’s actions before he became CEO.
“We are grappling with it, as are many places,” he said of the #metoo era and more and more women from all walks of life and industry coming forward with claims of sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and sexual assault.
Perhaps, but the digital kingpin offered scant specifics beyond promises of more transparency and change as he tried to assure critics that “the past couple of years shows” – AKA since he took over in 2015.
The Google chief did promise some reform, though he did not offer specifics.
“At Google we set a very high bar and we clearly didn’t live up to our expectations,” the just over three years on the job CEO told attendees of the New York Times ‘ DealBook/conference this afternoon as protests were still going on in some regions. “Words are not enough, you have to follow up with actions,” he followed up on-stage, before pivoting to remind the crowd that “these incidents are from a few years ago” and noted that around 48 staffers have been let go in recent years with no exit packages for behavior deemed inappropriate.
“There are concrete steps coming out as to what we could do better,” Pichai declared, with zero specifics except reiterating the words of support he had for the protesters yesterday in an internal memo. “It’s a process and I’m committed to doing better …we are doing our best,” the clearly uneasy CEO noted, pointing out that “sexual harassment in a societal problem.”
Some see Google’s protest as an example of employees wielding more control over their work and workplaces.
One reason that’s the case is that the conversation overflowed across both mainstream and social media. There was no precedent for thousands of Googlers taking to the streets to complain about their employer — many of them on the record — and news outlets seized on the opportunity. Photos of the cleverer protests signs ricocheted around Twitter, as did videos of marching and chanting. The Cut published a list of demands from the walkout’s organizers. which featured in every story written about the event.
[…] I felt a rare surge of optimism today. The Google walkout felt like an event out of another time — one when the power of social media seemed to be use primarily to speak truth to power, rather than dissolve the nature of our reality. The protesters played their parts masterfully, offering a useful playbook for many others follow. If we can’t get a functioning democracy from our democracy, at least for now, we may still able to get a taste of it from our employers.
Others see it as a specific example of how Silicon Valley is changing—and how tech employees are taking a stand.
The Google protest demonstrates how tech workers — historically a relatively disorganized labor group — are banding together to make demands of how big tech companies should more ethically operate their businesses. Earlier this year, Google declined to renew its contract with the Pentagon to build military AI after receiving strong backlash from its own engineers. Project Dragonfly, another controversial initiative to build a censored form of Google search in China, was also met with criticism — more than 1,000 employees signed a letter calling for more transparency about the project in August.
If Google enacts the protesters’ demands, specifically eliminating forced arbitration for harassment and discrimination cases, it could set a precedent for other major companies to do the same — allowing greater transparency around incidents of workplace harassment and assault. Uber already gave in to mounting political pressure to allow riders, drivers and employees to take such matters to court.
Some have praised Pichai for his response:
How are executives handling this?
“The CEO,Sundar Pichai, has been extraordinary. He responded very strongly after the story came out. Google did not push back on us in many ways…in fact his statement afterwards said we need to make a clean break from the past,” says @ktbenner pic.twitter.com/R0jRYcWhXo
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) November 1, 2018
Others have been more skeptical:
(Sundar Pichai is gaslighting you.) https://t.co/e7N4m8EcZe
— Tiana Lowe (@TianaTheFirst) October 31, 2018
Some are miffed by the timing of Pichai’s statements—notably that he offered an apology before the protest took place.
In a piece for Inc., Erik Sherman wrote:
By apologizing before the walkout, Pichai effectively undercut it. The effect is to say, that Google already knows it, apologized, and will do better in the future. Perhaps the company did this in part as a form of PR to reduce the impact of the protest. The stock had taken close to a 7 percent drop in the wake of the story last week.
But it does come across as self-serving and defensive to some degree, whether that was intended or not. What would have worked better was a note to indicate support for the marchers and a promise of a response the day after. Then the pressure would have been recognized. Google would have admitted that it was forces from without and from the employees that was pushing it to improved behavior.
In business as in comedy, timing is everything.
What do you think of Google’s response to the walkout and other employee protests, PR Daily readers?