By Michelle Wang and James Fitzpatrick
In the event of a crisis, our first response often focuses on protecting assets and communicating with our customers, clients and the media. The recent walk out of Google employees across the world highlights what should be any organisation’s first and highest priority stakeholder: the staff.
The Walk Out
On the November 2, Google employees banded together in one of the most well-coordinated walk-outs in history. Desks went empty in Google’s Singapore, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Germany, London, Zurich Dublin and Israel offices, with many leaving behind a flyer stating the protest was against the company’s lenient treatment of sexual harassment amongst senior executives.
The ‘Walk out for Real Change’
The spark for the walkout was lit by The New York Times. The newspaper published a feature detailing several cases where the tech giant protected executives accused of alleged sexual harassment and misconduct. These executives had their cases dealt with by the company.
One case in particular demonstrates how a high-level executive was found guilty by Google for sexual harassment against a fellow co-worker but received a payout of US $90 million as well as ‘best wishes’ from the COO at the time.
Explaining the walkout, Google Software Engineer Thomas Kneeland told the Guardian, “This is Google. We solve the toughest problems here…we all know that the status quo is unacceptable, and if there is any company who can solve this, I think it is Google.”
The episode flies in the face of what Google promotes internally and externally about gender equality and sexual harassment in the workplace. The company produces an annual diversity report, penned by Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer Danielle Brown, that details how the company’s efforts in this area are going.
It also came less than one year after Google famously received positive press for swiftly firing a software engineer for writing a controversial memo that suggested women were biologically less suited for technology jobs.
Google employees were left asking themselves what Google stands for as a company and whether those same values apply to senior executives.
Soon after the New York Times article, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email to employees. Pichai wrote in the message that the company’s apology “wasn’t enough”, and that the company needed to take a “much harder line on inappropriate behaviour.”
While Pichai didn’t address the payouts, he did point out that Google has dismissed 48 people in the past two years, “including 13 senior managers”, for sexual harassment.
Pichai also stated in the message that Google “will make sure managers are aware of the activities planned” and that employees would “have the support that [they] need”, signalling that the company was aware of the walk-out.
There has been little change from Google since the walkout as employees openly discuss their unhappiness about the new processes put in place to deal with workplace behaviour. This reaction to Google’s culture is a timely reminder that employees are a company’s greatest asset. In a crisis, they can become your greatest (or worst) ambassador – and as such – should be your first and highest priority stakeholder.