Google – Individuals Can Take Harassment to Court, No Collective Action
Google has announced that it wishes to change the way it will handle claims of sexual harassment among employees going forward, including making arbitration optional for classes involving sexual assault. However, while supposed transparency for workers seems great, Google’s arbitration provision still prohibits collective action. This means, harassment claims will no longer be forced into private arbitration, but only individuals can now bring their claims before a jury.
Arbitration agreements can be used to obscure harassment allegations and protect abusers, especially serial abusers because individuals are required to resolve disputes privately rather than in court. The arbiter is normally paid by the company, potentially creating an unfair bias. In Silicon Valley, where Google is headquartered, signed paperwork, including forced arbitration agreements, nondisclosure agreements, and confidentiality clauses are routinely included in employment contracts, all designed to further protect the company from going to court.
Google held a company-wide meeting for employees following the announcement. “Overall I felt the town hall was primarily the leadership team centering their own feelings as a performative show of appearing to listen, while substantively ignoring” concerns discrimination, and instead focusing only on harassment, says software engineer Irene Knapp, who introduced a shareholder proposal to match executive pay to diversity goals at the company’s last shareholder meeting. Knapp added, “The leadership team is congratulating itself already, before anything they’ve announced has even been launched—they wouldn’t let any of us get away with that.”
During the meeting, 20,000 employees walked out in a protest demanding transparency and change. They stated they were disappointed with Google’s lack of response to their concerns and found the company’s reaction was defensive and dismissive.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s announcement was delivered in a company-wide email. “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,” he wrote, adding, “Google has never required confidentiality in the arbitration process and arbitration still may be the best path for a number of reasons (e.g. personal privacy) but, we recognize that choice should be up to you.” There is an internal site measuring whether the demands have been met.
“This change looks like a step in the right direction,” says James Finberg, an attorney with Altshuler Berzon pressing a class-action lawsuit alleging gender bias in pay and promotion. He added, “Mandatory confidential arbitration can protect repeat sexual harassers, and result in more women becoming the victims of those harassers. Permitting women to file public lawsuits lets people in the company know about the bad behavior. Lawsuits, as opposed to individual arbitration proceedings, also permit women to band together, share resources, and bring about system change.”
He outlined the experience of one of the individuals in his suit, Kelly Ellis. “[Ellis] ended up changing departments, and eventually leaving Google, because a senior manager had been harassing her, and the company’s response was not to move him but to move her. Many women’s careers have been harmed by management not taking such complaints seriously and saying that it was their problem, not the problem of their accuser.”