Sunday 26 May 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Google workers around the world are accusing the company of misogyny, men and women saying 'time's up' - reminding us that collective bargaining works'

Solidarity: Google workers gather outside the Dublin office. Picture: Doug O'Connor
Solidarity: Google workers gather outside the Dublin office. Picture: Doug O'Connor
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

We're rarely apart, my Android phone and me. I use it to send emails and text messages - both business and personal - pay bills, order groceries, book flights, search for news updates and see what's happening in the social media world. Like brushing my teeth or taking a coffee break, the Android is integrated into my daily routine.

The inventor of this mobile multi-tasker is a tech genius. He is also a large part of the reason why thousands of Google employees globally walked out this week over the company's handling of alleged sexual misconduct in the workplace. Staff were incensed by revelations about a reported $90m (€79m) golden parachute for Andy Rubin - whose own Android nickname was given to the operating system - against whom Google now admits credible sexual harassment allegations were made. Rubin denied any misconduct and said the figure was over-inflated.

Here's how Google dealt with those claims. It elbowed out him and other employees for inappropriate behaviour but prioritised safeguarding the company's reputation above doing right by its workforce. In staying silent, it showed no leadership either towards Googlers or the broader community. This, despite its enormous platform and its inclination to lecture us all on responsible and ethical conduct.

Indeed, Google praised Mr Rubin as he left in 2014, eulogising about "a billion-plus happy users" and going on to invest heavily in his next venture. Profit above ethics and protect the brand were the strategies. Consequently, some of those billion-plus users - me included - are less happy today.

Not double standards, but high standards are what many people want. Instead, we're left with a sense of nice products, shame above the corporate culture. To add insult to injury, Google's top tier is exposed (not for the first time) as hypocrites peddling fake philosophy with their "do no evil" company slogan.

The internet giant trades on its cuddly image as a caring employer. Googlers are urged to do "good and interesting things" and Google has been known for its "20pc time policy" which encourages staff to use a fifth of their time to pursue passion projects on the side. In particular, they are encouraged to participate as a group in community service programmes - which fosters team-building.

Workplace sweeteners are closely associated with Google and other tech companies. Workers elsewhere tend to look on in envy at the free food and drinks which reduce day-to-day expenditure; often I cast an admiring glance into the staff café in Google's Dublin offices as my Dart train passes by. Then there are the games' areas and those jolly beanbags in breakout zones.

Such perks might be construed as suggesting union representation is unnecessary. Treats signal to staff their bosses love them and intermediaries are not needed. But loving them in the biblical sense is surely a stretch too far.

Tech companies also offer treats to make the office environment more palatable and encourage them to work longer hours. But if your workplace is somewhere you don't feel safe, freebies are nothing but a rather insulting sugar coating. Who wouldn't prefer respect to a free coffee and Danish pastry at their desk?

This wave of co-ordinated work stoppages demonstrates Google has a problem with its corporate culture. Behaviour is driven by culture and the conduct at Google - plus management's response to it - does not indicate a supportive environment for staff.

Mr Rubin is not an isolated case. Some 48 executives have been nudged out for reported sexual misconduct in the past two years.

As for the Android creator, he is one among a number of executives protected by Google over the past decade and paid generous exit packages. This suggests a short-term approach - money might make the nastiness vanish - without considering whether the problem has drilled down roots.

Here's what a former Google engineer told 'The New York Times', which broke the Rubin story. "When Google covers up harassment and passes the trash it contributes to an environment where people don't feel safe reporting misconduct," said Liz Fong-Jones. "They suspect nothing will happen or, worse, the men will be paid and the women will be pushed aside."

Companies need to take a hard line on all abuses of power. Why does management need to be told this? Surely it's self-evident. Staff understand the difference between right and wrong - that's why Googlers streamed out of offices worldwide, not just around the US but in Dublin, London, Berlin, Zurich, Singapore and Hyderabad in India.

Often wearing clothing with Google logos, they held up signs and posted them on social media with messages such as "What do I do at Google? I work hard every day so the company can afford $90,000,000 payouts to execs who sexually harass my co-workers". One of the largest turnouts was at its headquarters in California, where employees stood outside with signs urging the company to protect victims and not harassers.

Isn't it interesting staff at this multinational organisation are acting as one workforce? That the issue at the heart of this cultural mismatch within Google is causing dismay in far-flung points of the atlas?

What's happening is a manifestation of larger, cultural concerns about equality and respect - not just for women but for other groups. Googlers may be influenced by the #MeToo movement, which called out sexual abuse of power. The result is that workers at the software company are accusing their employer publicly of misogyny - women and men standing together to chant "time's up".

Thursday's walkout is also a reminder to people who believe trade unionism to be a spent force that collective bargaining works.

Google would be run by extremely foolish people if it reacted in anything other than a supportive way. Its reputation is on the line. Already it is damaged by its monopolisation of the internet, the low taxes it pays annually and for developing a search engine for China that censors results. Mea culpas regarding sexual misconduct are not enough. Both Google staff and its customer base, society at large, need visible action.

Specifically, Googlers are insisting on structural reform in the name of transparency, accountability and equality. They also want a chief diversity officer who can speak directly to the board, indicating this issue has extended to a demand for all workers to be treated with dignity and equality.

Decent men are as incensed as women by Google management's unethical behaviour. Their joint protest is a positive use of energy - not least because it's on behalf of more vulnerable colleagues.

Martina Devlin's latest book is a short story collection 'Truth & Dare'.


Irish Independent

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