The CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, said the company would overhaul its sexual harassment policies, meeting some of the demands of employees who organized historic walkouts across the globe.
In an email to staff on Thursday, Pichai said Google would end forced arbitration for sexual misconduct claims, revamp its investigations process, share data on harassment claims and outcomes, and provide new support systems for people who come forward. The announcement is a notable achievement for employees who organized roughly 20,000 workers to walk out of the corporation’s offices across 50 cities last week.
Some critics, however, said the commitments were inadequate, failed to address pay disparities, and ignored demands to improve the rights of temporary employees and contractors.
The massive protests came after a New York Times investigation revealed that the tech firm gave a $90m payout to a top executive after determining that sexual misconduct allegations against him were credible. The revelations sparked intense backlash and reignited concerns about discrimination and abuse in Silicon Valley.
“We recognize that we have not always gotten everything right in the past and we are sincerely sorry for that,” Pichai wrote. “It’s clear we need to make some changes.”
Walkout organizers demanded an end to forced arbitration, a popular corporate practice that has long enabled HR departments to push employee complaints into secretive hearings. This system can silence victims with non-disclosure agreements, conceal labor violations from the public, and protect serial offenders. Arbitration has faced intenser scrutiny since the former Uber engineer Susan Fowler spoke out about harassment last year.
Pichai said Google would now make arbitration “optional for individual sexual harassment and sexual assault claims”, but noted that employees could still choose to keep their claims confidential. This is a significant shift for the company, which earlier this year was pursuing private arbitration in a lawsuit brought by a female software engineer. That plaintiff, Loretta Lee, described a “bro-culture” that she said enabled daily harassment, including “lewd comments, pranks and even physical violence”.
Although Microsoft and Uber backed off of forced arbitration policies in the wake of pressure amid the #MeToo movement, Google was previously resistant to similar reforms. An attorney for the company told the Guardian in March that arbitration was efficient and effective, saying: “Arbitration has been in use for literally decades.”
Pichai also said Google would disclose trends about investigations and disciplinary actions and would create “one dedicated site” that included “live support” for people with complaints. Google would now also offer “extra care and resources” to employees, including counseling and “career support” and a “support person” , the CEO added.
The original walkout demands called for a “clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously” and stated that it should include those who are not full-time workers.
The Tech Workers Coalition, a group of labor organizers that includes Google employees, criticized Pichai’s message in a statement to the Guardian on Thursday, saying that “temps, vendors and contractors” (TVCs) “continue to have no adequate protections from sexual harassment”.
This workforce, which is disproportionately women and people of color, did not receive the email announcement and were excluded from a town-hall discussion, the coalition said, adding: “This deliberate slight demonstrates the caste-like system deployed by Google, which fails to protect its workers and our colleagues. For a company that likes to innovate, it’s striking to see such a lack of vision for treating all of their workforce with basic dignity.”
The coalition also criticized Pichai for ignoring the walkout demand to appoint an employee representative to the company’s board.
Pichai’s email also made no mention of pay discrimination, which is a rampant problem for women across Google, according to an ongoing class-action lawsuit and US labor investigators. The walkout organizers had demanded a “commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity”.
Walkout organizers called on leadership to do more in a statement Thursday afternoon, saying the “company must address issues of systemic racism and discrimination, including pay equity and rates of promotion, and not just sexual harassment alone”.
Added organizer Stephanie Parker, “We demand a truly equitable culture, and Google leadership can achieve this by putting employee representation on the board and giving full rights and protections to contract workers, our most vulnerable workers, many of whom are Black and Brown women.”
Google has previously said it closed its gender pay gap, a position the class-action is challenging.
Google remains overwhelmingly white, Asian and male. In leadership positions, 2% of employees are black, 1.8% are Latino and 25.5% are women, according to the company’s figures.
Asked about temporary workers, a spokesperson pointed to Pichai’s statement saying Google investigates “all matters in which a complaint is made by a TVC against an employee”. A “code of conduct” also requires Google suppliers to “demonstrate a commitment to identify, measure, and improve a culture of diversity and inclusion through all aspects of workplace management”, the statement said.