May 1, 2019; CNN Business and Wired
Last week, on May 1st, celebrated in most of the world as International Workers’ Day, workers in Google offices around the world walked off their jobs to highlight allegations of company retaliation against employees who had led protests regarding Google’s handling of sexual harassment claims.
Google, one of the Big Four technology companies along with Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, has been in the news since those protests went public. Google used to be a perennial on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For until 2017, occupying the top spot eight times. Since 2018, the company has been off the list completely. The company previously lauded for efforts to create a “safe and inclusive” workplace has instead been in the news for protests and walkouts.
Walkouts in November 2018 had to do with how the company handled sexual harassment claims. Google responded by “eliminating its forced arbitration policies for employees bringing sexual assault or harassment claims.” However, two Google employees, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, posted an internal open letter describing company retaliation against them.
Stapleton, who has worked at Google for almost 12 years, is a marketing manager of YouTube. According to a Wired article, Stapleton claims that after a demotion, she lost half of her direct reports. Her original role was reinstated after obtaining legal representation. Stapleton reported that Google human resources “suggested that she take medical leave although she was not sick.”
Whitaker states her manager spoke to her in March regarding two types of people at Google, “those who quit and those who stay and hate every minute of it and try to destroy it.” The statement surprised Whitaker, because her work “always aimed to ensure that Google lived up to its purported values, and treated its workforce, and the rest of the world, with respect.” Whittaker, who has worked at Google for 13 years, has led Google Open Research.
Google, in a statement sent to Fortune after the magazine broke the story about the letter from Stapleton and Whittaker, said they “prohibit retaliation in the workplace, and investigate all allegations.” Google denied retaliation, saying “employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganized, to keep pace with evolving business needs.”
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Contrast the Google case with another alleged employee retaliation case at Kean University in New Jersey. Ten lecturers in the general education department of the public university known for graduating the most teachers in the state were informed that their contracts would not be renewed after they spoke up about their working conditions.
The environment in question was the change from private offices to “cubicle-based floor plan with short dividers between desks” that do not provide enough privacy for individual student sessions wherein vulnerable students may discuss issues of a personal nature. The lecturers answered the question the university president directly asked them what they thought of the new space. The non-renewal was glaring since it came after they and other lecturers received a letter from the university stating substantial resources were being invested to improve graduation rates and naming general education faculty members as a critical part of it.
Lecturers who were interviewed for the Chronicle of Higher Education article said the non-renewals were retaliatory because the 10 lecturers corresponded with those who spoke up. The university spokeswoman denied that this was the case and suggested that those whose contracts were not renewed simply failed to meet their evaluation standards.
If employees trying to hold their employers to account face retaliation, what does it say about an organization’s culture? In Google’s case, the November protests involved 20,000 Googlers, and the May 1st walkouts occurred in at least 15 US offices and London. What happened to the company that used to be at the pinnacle of positive organizational culture that valued employees?
At Kean University, the lecturers who made forthright comments in the best interest of the students were let go. Both organizations deny allegations that the actions were retaliatory by citing their policies, which mean nothing without a commitment to uphold them even when they create costs the organization may not want to pay. In both cases, employees feel they were severely punished for acting with integrity, maintaining the interests of those they believed they serve. Did the two organizations that asked employees to take their work seriously hold up their side of the bargain?
Nonprofits, of course, face their own challenges in this regard. Whistleblowers in the nonprofit sector, NPQ’s Rick Cohen noted years ago, “aren’t well protected, to put it mildly. The nonprofit sector needs to look at whistleblowers in its midst with the same sense of importance that our society has given whistleblowers in the corporate and government sectors.” And, as the cases at Google and Kean illustrate, many gaps remain in protections in those sectors as well.—Kori Kanayama