Googlers to Board: It’s Time to Change

Remember the walkout by thousands of Google workers from about 20 offices around the globe last Nov. 1?

Googlers in locations such as New York, Seattle, Singapore and Berlin, just to name a few, staged a widely publicized protest last fall to help draw attention to the company’s handling of sexual-harassment complaints. The walkout was spurred by a New York Times story a week earlier that “revealed that Google had paid millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of misconduct, while staying silent about the transgressions.” (See this related story.)

Well recently, employees at Google, along with company shareholders, turned up the heat (again) by issuing a written resolution to the board of Alphabet (Google’s parent), calling for reform in areas such as racial and gender diversity, and asking the board to consider tying these metrics to executive bonuses.

“The resolution claims Alphabet ‘has not responded adequately to key demands’ made by workers in a massive walkout in November, such as adding a worker representative to its board and ending forced arbitration for its entire workforce, rather than only for direct employees and only for cases of alleged sexual harassment or assault,” according a recent Bloomberg story titled  “Google Shareholders and Workers Call on Board to Fix ‘Diversity Crisis” posted earlier this week. “It also asks the board’s compensation committee to look into including ‘sustainability metrics’—such as executive diversity—into its bonus system or stock vesting protocols.”

Pat Tomaino, director of socially responsible investing for Zevin Asset Management LLC, told Bloomberg:  “We believe executives are out to lunch on several key social risks facing the company.” Zevin collaborated with the employees in crafting the proposal, which is similar to one raised at last year’s shareholder meeting.

In response to the resolution, an Alphabet spokeswoman emailed Bloomberg the following statement: “We’re working hard to make Google more representative and build an inclusive workplace where employees feel respected, supported, and valued. We report our progress extensively every year, including hiring and attrition rates across lines of race and gender.”

The events at Alphabet represent just the latest example of employee activism, which some predict will become even more visible in the months and years ahead.

What was once a concern for industries such as tobacco, oil and pharma is now affecting fields such as tech, retail and entertainment, says David Greenberg, special advisor to LRN, a Los Angeles-based firm that provides companies advice in areas such ethics, regulatory compliance and corporate culture.

“I think we’ve reached a moral moment, and I don’t think it’s likely to pass,” he adds. “Our trust in our institutions are deteriorating, and along with that, the expectations and issues that will confront corporate boards are multiplying and broadening. In my view, there’s no going back.”

Greenberg says boards must begin to view their businesses through a societal and moral lens. “They need to ask the question: What does society expect of a company in these businesses, with these products and services and this footprint,” he says. “And if they do not know or get the answer … they will stay behind the curve.”

LRN’s research suggests that boards are generally doing a poor job answering that question, Greenberg says.  “They’re not focusing on the culture, which is the heartbeat of the place. If they’re not up to speed on that, they’re going to continue to be hit by issues.

“What was once a series of soft issues have now become very hard issues,” he adds. “They’re effecting long-term viability.”

So what’s the takeaway here for HR executives? “My advice is for them to take a proactive, deep dive into the things that are on employees’ minds,” says Greenberg, adding that HR leaders need to “widen their lens” because the issues and concerns of employees are broader than ever before.

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