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What Really Caused Google’s Unthinkable Workplace Backlash?

In recent events, Google staff around the world rose together to protest the company’s workplace culture, following claims of sexual harassment, gender inequality and systemic racism. The protests span across the globe, in all major cities Google holds office, from Tokyo & Singapore to London and Zurich.

Below CEO Today hears from Nik Gowing, an ex-BBC world news presenter, about how one of the world’s wealthiest corporates failed to recognise issues it believed were only internal HR matters and how it signifies leadership problems in the modern climate. Nick recently co-wrote a book called Thinking the Unthinkable, with a mission to help global leaders understand and manage disruption so they can thrive on change.

The sight was extraordinary. Large numbers of Google employees protesting on the streets outside scores of the corporate giants’ headquarters around the world. Others did the same inside their offices.

Equally extraordinary was the e-spontaneity and e-coordination.

Google’s instant, mass, global digital connectivity with which it has trailblazed and galvanised the majority of all of us in the past ten years had bitten it big time in the reputational butt.

Did it think that such mass protests by their own staff were unthinkable? Had no one at the top envisaged a mass internal backlash fuelled by anger and resentment over huge pay-offs for alleged inappropriate behaviour – which those who are now former top executives deny as “false allegations”?

Official apologies by the CEO Sundar Pichai were not enough.

The distinctive multicoloured logos stood out prominently above the angry Googlers gathered on the sidewalks. The giant company’s usual ‘can’t-do-anything-wrong’ self-confidence had been shattered by the mass, instant “women’s walk” fury of its own staff.

Oddly, there was little sign of e-slogans on tablets or I-pads. Instead the words of disgust about treatment of harassment claims and huge pay offs after allegations of inappropriate behaviour were written retro-style on boards and placards.

In a matter of barely a couple of hours, Google found itself in its own Alphabet soup.

Remarkably there had been no mass meetings or votes. Google employees are not unionised. Why bother? Who would turn down a G-job? After all, CNN and Forbes have labelled it the No.1 place to work.

Instead Google’s own pioneering digital connectivity produced an instant e-consensus via laptops, tablets and handsets. Within hours they were out, and not just at one or two offices. This was united anger. And it was worldwide, by an estimated 20,000 employees.

Unions representing organised labour elsewhere must have salivated at the speed and impact. Authoritarian countries like China would say they were vindicated in their banning of Google over its ability to e-curate instant mass anti-government protests.

Significantly, the super generous perks and pay for Googlers had not held them back. Issues of moral principle about the way the digital giant handles staff complaints and giant pay offs mattered more than any possible risk to salaries, job prospects and work conditions which are stratospherically better than the market average. In any case, there’s a market shortage of top coders and data engineers these days.

From the CEO down, one of the world’s five wealthiest corporates was being humiliated by its own apparent complacency about the status of issues it believed were only internal HR matters to be handled on Google’s own terms.

So, in a matter of barely a couple of hours, Google found itself in its own Alphabet soup.

From the CEO down, one of the world’s five wealthiest corporates was being humiliated by its own apparent complacency about the status of issues it believed were only internal HR matters to be handled on Google’s own terms. Just before the protest, Sundar Pichai emailed staff apologising for the company’s actions. He said there would be a “much harder line” on inappropriate behaviour.

Public apologies were too late and not enough. As a year of the #MeToo movement has shown, the issues are all much more and so public these days.

Has Google been slow to get in tune with the unthinkable of a new mood, which the New York Times described as ‘Google workers Reject Silicon Valley Individualism’?

The new power is not high salaries but togetherness.

The tech giant has faced claims of pay discrimination. Fifteen months ago, Googler James Damore was fired after he wrote an open memo speculating on whether gender explained why so few women work in coding. His analysis was viewed as perpetuating gender stereotypes.

Other corporate policies have faced staff challenge.

In April, 3,000 employees signed a petition to protest against the company’s involvement with a US Department of Defence AI project that studies imagery which could be used for better targeting of air strikes. In September, came confirmation that Google was working on a search engine for use in China which will give the PRC government new power to censor and track people.

In our new book, Thinking the Unthinkable, on why so many top leaders get so much so wrong in this new normal of disruption, Chris Langdon and I highlight the growing cost of the know-it-all assumptions by the top C-suite players in the Valley. Increasingly a supercilious assumption of an untouchable, unassailable correctness that generated huge wealth and money value is being not just questioned. It is being both found out and challenged.

Other corporate leaders need to learn a lot from Google.

Google apparently being out of touch with the depth of feelings of its own staff fits a pattern of executive complacency at the top layers of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. It stems from a now misplaced self-belief that enormous wealth, value and ability to generate effectively unlimited amounts of cash means their wisdom is above all other, and that they can do no wrong.

Now they are being caught out. Their huge wealth and earning power are corrupting their grip on a more appropriate wisdom and what their staff and customers believe is right.

Google apparently being out of touch with the depth of feelings of its own staff fits a pattern of executive complacency at the top layers of Silicon Valley’s tech giants.

Google’s employees have shown that the huge corporates suffer from the same default complacency as Facebook which was last week fined by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). FB had committed a ‘serious breach of law’ over the Cambridge Analytica data misuse, which it knew about and should have stopped.

The fine was only a puny at £500,000, the maximum possible at that time. Under new UK legislation it could be several billion pounds next time. What mattered more was the detailed and savage indictment of FB’s complacency in a year which Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged would be a “serious year of self-improvement” after a “year of serious errors.”

Until now there has been an overarching Silicon Valley principle. Ethics should not get in the ways of compelling new tech developments.

As a result, unthinkables were rarely on radar screens or part of culture. “The attitude is move fast and break things,” Greg Sherwin, a 25-year veteran of the Valley told us. Until this year he was Vice President for Engineering and Information Technology at Singularity University. “Companies must be more than just out for profit … They want to be light footed … They don’t want to spend until they need to.”

But he believes that the culture of big tech now has no option but to change. This is because new engineers and graduates emerging from college are “more holistically aware”. This means that on the ethical implications, tech corporations will have to be “more receptive to that message.”

The recent mass Google protest proves how far they still have to go in broadening top down minds, attitudes and responses.

This time last year You Tube, which like Google is owned by Alphabet, was taking intense flack on another issue it should have seen coming. Their algorithms were positioning lucrative revenue-generating ads next to vile videos. It was the same at Facebook.

The result was a public backlash. Anger suddenly pressed hard against a corporate complacency which refused to accept responsibility or take action that would entail any significant change to their business model. Big spenders for online advertising went for the jugular. Major brands like Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Volkswagen withdrew advertising from YouTube because their ads were positioned around extremist or derogatory videos.

After revelations about the abuse of its data via Cambridge Analytica, advertisers like Mozilla on Facebook began ‘pressing pause’ on pumping the lifeblood of huge amounts of advertising money into the tech giants’ huge cash coffers. The reason was dynamite. “We feel that the social structure is being hacked, and also that individual consumers and citizens are being hacked. In a matter of hours.” As a result, months of journalistic investigation was threatening Facebook’s phenomenal wealth, global reputation and perhaps even its survival.

Facebook introduced new rules and hired thousands of people to monitor and scrutinise output. None of this was enough.

Even though Google Deep Mind has new programmes devoted to ethics, the scale of the Google staff protest seems to confirm not. At the very top, culture, mindset and behaviour has to change. And fast.

“Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children, or which create division in society, and promote anger and hate,” warned Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer. “We cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain … which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of transparency.”

Insiders from one major tech company told Thinking the Unthinkable that top executives had discussed this possibility, but not with any great enthusiasm or realisation of the possible implications. The prospect was too much trouble. They had decided it would require an enormous scale of human intervention to screen and filter material. “It could not be done reliably with software” and “it was not considered threatening enough. … There was not a big realisation of the damage it could do.” The cost escalation would be enormous. The threat was viewed as so small that it did not justify spending on the level of resources which would be needed.

So they would wing it. But they were so wrong. When crisis hit, winging did not work.

The strength of the public outrage, corporate backlash and political anger forced the hands of the monster tech corporates who had believed they could do no wrong. YouTube revealed it had to pull 8.3 million videos from its site between October and December 2017. More than 80% were identified by software and machine learning, not humans.

This is the pressure from a new imperative for a new social responsibility. But has there really been a seismic change in attitudes? Even though Google Deep Mind has new programmes devoted to ethics, the scale of the Google staff protest seems to confirm not.

At the very top, culture, mindset and behaviour has to change. And fast.

“People are realising you have to think ahead of time about problems that may [emerge],” says Demis Hassabis, co-founder of DeepMind, which was bought by Google in 2014. “Collateral problems you did not necessarily realise when starting to make the technology. But you need to think harder about that at the beginning, not wait till the problems appear and then try to catch up.”

Last week’s anger of Google staff about the attitude of their leaders on social issues like pay-offs and alleged inappropriate behaviour are precisely such collateral problems which have been seen as irritants not core issues.

Another co-founder of Deep Mind, Mustafa Suleyman, shares the pragmatic anxiety: “It’s clear that technology is losing society’s trust.”

The Google staff protest has further intensified the reasons for saying that. Other leaders in every industry and government need to take note.

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