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After worker protest, Google stops requiring arbitration in sexual misconduct cases

After worker protest, Google stops requiring arbitration in sexual misconduct cases
Google employees in Venice joined their counterparts around the world Nov. 1 to walk out in protest of the company's handling of sexual misconduct allegations. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Google is promising to be more forceful and open about its handling of sexual misconduct cases, a week after thousands of workers — including highly paid engineers — walked out in protest over the tech giant’s male-dominated culture.

Chief Executive Sundar Pichai spelled out the concessions in an email sent Thursday to Google employees. The company bowed to one of the protesters' main demands by dropping its requirement that sexual misconduct cases be handled in arbitration. Under the new policies, workers will be able to sue. The company also promised to give its workers more details about sexual misconduct cases and to require more frequent training aimed at preventing misconduct.

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The note of contrition came a week after the tech giant's workers left their cubicles in dozens of offices around the world to protest management's treatment of top executives and other male workers accused of sexual misconduct. The protest's organizers estimated 20,000 workers participated in the walkout.

Some of the protesters’ demands went unanswered, such as their call for Google to publicly disclose details about sexual misconduct cases investigated by the company. The walkout’s seven core organizers said they received the company’s response at the same time as other employees, and that neither Pichai nor other company leaders had met with them to discuss the concessions.

Overall, they said that they were pleased to see the changes Google made but that leaders ignored several of their core demands and paid little attention to requests that centered on issues of discrimination and structural inequity.

“We demand a truly equitable culture, and Google leadership can achieve this by putting employee representation on the board [of directors] and giving full rights and protections to contract workers, our most vulnerable workers, many of whom are Black and Brown women,” Stephanie Parker, one of the organizers, said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Google’s dropping of its mandatory arbitration policy mirrors a change made by ride-hailing giant Uber after complaints from its female employees prompted an internal investigation concluding Uber’s ranks had been poisoned by rampant sexual harassment.

“Google's leaders and I have heard your feedback and have been moved by the stories you've shared,” Pichai said in his email. “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.”

Google also promised to provide more details about sexual misconduct cases in internal reports available to all employees. The breakdowns will include the number of cases that were substantiated within various company departments and list the types of punishment imposed, including firings, pay cuts and mandated counseling. Organizers had asked for such reports, but they also wanted the findings to be made public.

The company said it is also stepping up its training aimed at preventing misconduct, requiring all employees to go through the process annually instead of every other year. Those who fall behind in their training, including top executives, will be dinged in their annual performance reviews, leaving a blemish that could lower their pay and make it more difficult for them to get promoted.

Google didn't address the protesters’ demand that it commit to pay women the same as men doing similar work. When previously confronted with accusations that it shortchanges women by the U.S. Labor Department and in lawsuits filed by female employees, Google has steadfastly maintained that its compensation system doesn't discriminate between men and women.

The company also did not address the demand for an employee representative to be added to its board of directors to keep leadership accountable to its commitments to transparency regarding harassment, discrimination and other misconduct.

Protesters also requested that the company's chief diversity officer be elevated to report directly to Pichai. Pichai's Thursday email says the chief diversity officer, Danielle Brown, meets with him and other company leaders each month, but a Google spokeswoman said Brown would continue to report to Google’s vice president of people operations, Eileen Naughton.

The walkout organizers are not the only employees dissatisfied with the company's response. A California-based employee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said that the changes feel “painfully incremental” and that it feels like employees are “dragging the leadership along.”

”It’s absolutely insufficient,” said a second employee, who also works in California and declined to be named for the same reason. “The company’s response ignores discrimination and race and focuses solely on harassment.” Even when it comes to harassment, that employee continued, “the concessions are very minimal and seem unlikely to lead to real change.”

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The organizers said this is just the beginning of their work, but some rank-and-file staffers are not confident that they will be able to mobilize the same level of mass participation seen at last week’s walkouts.

”I feel the [company’s] response may have been ‘good enough’ for people who care but are hesitant to put their necks out,” the first California-based employee said.

The reforms announced Thursday are the latest fallout from a broader societal backlash against men's exploitation of their female subordinates in business, entertainment and politics — a movement that has spawned the “#MeToo” hashtag as a sign of unity and a call for change.

Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc., got caught in the crosshairs two weeks ago after the New York Times detailed allegations that the creator of Google's Android software, Andy Rubin, had committed sexual misconduct. The newspaper said Rubin received a $90-million severance package in 2014 after Google concluded the accusations were credible. Rubin has denied the allegations.

Like its Silicon Valley peers, Google has already openly acknowledged that its workforce is too heavily concentrated with white and Asian men, especially in the highest-paying executive and computer programming jobs. Women account for 31% of Google's employees worldwide, and that percentage is lower for leadership roles.

Critics believe that gender imbalance has created a “brogrammer” culture akin to a college fraternity house that treats women as sex objects. As part of its ongoing efforts, Google will now require at least one woman or a non-Asian ethnic minority to be included on the list of candidates for executive jobs.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the walkout organizers and other Google employees.

11:45 a.m.: This article was updated with walkout organizers' estimate that 20,000 workers participated in last week's protest and clarification of Google's stated perspective on gender pay equity.

11:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about Pichai’s email and comments from the walkout organizers.

This article was originally published at 8:50 a.m.

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