Tech by VICE

Google Workers Sit-In to Protest Alleged Retaliation Against Women Who Report Sexual Harassment

The organizers say they've been retaliated against, six months after a massive, worldwide walkout.

by Caroline Haskins
May 1 2019, 4:13pm

Image: Mason Trinca/Getty Images

Twenty thousand Google employees around the world walked out of the company offices in November 2018 at 11:10 a.m. in order to protest the history of sexual harassment, discrimination, and racism within the company. On Wednesday May 1 at 11 a.m. Eastern Time, the organizers of last November’s walkout coordinated a sit-in across major US and international Google campuses to protest the company’s alleged retaliation against people who report workplace sexual harassment.

The organizers of the sit-in told Motherboard that participants are planning on reading retaliation stories in real time starting at 11 a.m. in order to help and encourage participation. The sit-in was organized by communicating with employees via internal mailing lists, they said.

According to a Medium post published Monday by organizers of the walkout and sit-in, four anonymous employees who have reported sexual harassment to Google’s Employee Relations division have had their reports treated irresponsibly. Additionally, the organizers say Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton—who helped organize the first Google Walkout—have faced retaliation within the company, a document shared with Motherboard says. WIRED also reported last month that Whittaker and Stapleton have faced retaliation.

Whittaker claims that after Google disbanded its AI ethics board on April 4, she was told by the company that her role would be changing “dramatically,” and that and she would have to cease her work on ethics in AI within the company and at NYU's AI Now Institute, which she co-founded. Stapleton alleges that despite her high internal performance, she told she was being demoted, being stripped of half her reports, and a once-approved project was "no longer on the table."

The organizers of the sit-in are demanding for Google to completely meet all of the demands of the original November walkout. Those original demands included asking the company to end “forced arbitration,” a practice in which sexual harassment and other employment-related claims are handled by an internal arbitration board rather than a court; a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequality; a publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report; a clearer reporting process for sexual harassment claims; and the promotion of the company’s Chief Diversity Officer.

Google ended forced arbitration for full-time employees in February, but according to the organizers, contract employees are still subject to it, and the remaining demands are unaddressed. With the sit-in, the organizers are also demanding to have Larry Page address these demands publicly, reverse its retaliations against Whittaker and Stapleton, and investigate the Human Resources Department and share the results publicly, the document states.

When reached by Motherboard via email, a Google spokesperson said, “We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy. To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigate all allegations of retaliation."

The collective action shows that the labor movement within Google—and more broadly, Silicon Valley—has staying power and continues to grow. Last year, internal action within Google prompted the company to not renew Project Maven, a controversial AI project between Google and the Pentagon. Earlier this week, Waypoint reported that workers at Riot Games are planning a walkout demanding that the company—which has had its own sexual harassment problems—not implement forced arbitration there.

In the Medium post, one woman alleges that after reporting sexual harassment, her immigration status was threatened. “Eventually, Ethics & Compliance sent my [Human Resource Business Partners] over who ended up delivering a veiled threat that if I continue pursuing this, my immigration status would be at risk,” the anonymous employee wrote. “Fortunately, I was no longer dependent on Google for my immigration status but the case highlights how E&C and HR are leveraging personal vulnerabilities of Googlers to quash concerns, protect abusers and retaliate against those who speak out.”

Other women allege that their sexual harassment complaint was shared with their manager, and their manager began interviewing for a replacement. One woman said she received attitude “coaching” after reporting harassment. One woman alleges that she was passed over for a promotion in favor of a male peer with the “same ratings and same tenure,” and the excuse given by her manager was that she was being an “emotional woman.”

One of the original Walkout organizers and a current organizer for Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration told Motherboard in a phone call that they helped organize a phone bank today for Google employees to call their congresspeople in support of the Fair Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act. If passed, the act would ban companies from forcing employees to settle disputes in private arbitration. The employee said that the group encourages sit-in participants to also participate in the phone bank.

Google ended forced arbitration practices in February after successful efforts from Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration (then calledEnd Forced Arbitration at Google), and now, Gupta says that organizing efforts have expanded to nationwide efforts, involving collaboration with Harvard’s Pipeline Parity Project and other groups.

Correction: This article has been corrected to explain that forced arbitration was ended only for Google staffers, not contract employees.

Update 2:56 p.m.: This article has been update to include a statement from Google.