Google says it will reform sexual misconduct rules

Google is promising to be more forceful and open about its handling of sexual misconduct cases, a week after high-paid engineers and others walked out in protest over its male-dominated culture.

Tech giant promises more forceful, open approach following employee walkout

Workers protest against Google's handling of sexual misconduct allegations at the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters on Thursday. CEO Sundar Pichai said in an email that the tech giant will overhaul its handling of such allegations. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

Google is promising to be more forceful and open about its handling of sexual misconduct cases, a week after thousands of high-paid engineers and others walked out in protest over its male-dominated culture.

Google bowed to one of the protesters' main demands by dropping mandatory arbitration of all sexual misconduct cases. That will now be optional, so workers can choose to sue in court and present their case in front of a jury.

It mirrors a change made by ride-hailing service Uber after complaints from its female employees prompted an internal investigation. The probe concluded that its rank had been poisoned by rampant sexual harassment. 

Advocates for the victims point out that mandatory arbitration is not always desirable as some victims may prefer confidentiality and wish to avoid facing their alleged perpetrators.

"Google's leaders and I have heard your feedback and have been moved by the stories you've shared," CEO Sundar Pichai said in an email to Google employees Thursday. "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." Pichai's email was obtained by The Associated Press.

Last week, the tech giant's workers left their cubicles in dozens of offices around the world to protest what they consider management's lax treatment of top executives and other male workers accused of sexual harassment and other misconduct. The protest's organizers estimated that about 20,000 workers participated

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

More transparency

Google will also 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 counselling.

The company 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 to get promoted.

The protests were touched off by the company's handling of Android software developer Andy Rubin's departure. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

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

The changes didn't go far enough to satisfy Vicki Tardif Holland, a Google employee who helped organize and spoke at the protests near the company's Cambridge, Massachusetts, office last week.

"While Sundar's message was encouraging, important points around discrimination, inequity and representation were not addressed," Holland wrote in an email responding to an AP inquiry.

Nevertheless, employment experts predicted the generally positive outcome of Google's mass uprising is bound to have ripple effects across Silicon Valley and perhaps the rest of corporate America.

When Google does something, other employers tend to copy it.- Stephanie Creary, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School

"These things can be contagious," said Thomas Kochan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology management professor specializing in employment issues. "I would expect to see other professionals taking action when they see something wrong."

Some employers might even pre-emptively adopt some of Google's new policies, given its prestige, said Stephanie Creary, who specializes in workplace and diversity issues at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "When Google does something, other employers tend to copy it," she said.

Credible allegations 

Google got caught in the crosshairs two weeks ago after The New York Times detailed allegations of sexual misconduct about the creator of Google's Android software, Andy Rubin. 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 per cent of Google's employees worldwide, and it's lower for leadership roles.

Critics believe that gender imbalance has created a "brogammer" 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.

With a file from CBC News