What's up, Google?

By Claire Lamont

As thousands of their employees stage mass walkouts across the globe, the tech titan is facing serious questions about its internal culture. This is a shock to the system: We all know Google’s come a long way from its early Silicon Valley dormroom vibe (‘Don’t be evil’ as their faux-simple motto went - now changed to the slightly more aspirational ‘Do the Right Thing’.) Despite, or perhaps because of this, the scale of wrongdoing leaking out makes for sobering reading.

The protests follow a story in the New York Times last week reporting that Google has paid out millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of sexual misconduct - while staying silent about these internal issues. Sundar Pichai (the Chief Executive) and Larry Page have now apologised, and one executive has resigned.

But interviews with participants in the walkouts suggested that for many Google employees, the cases made public this week only scratch the surface of a deeply problematic workplace culture in which misconduct, particularly sexual harassment against female employees, is tolerated or covered up.

Google has been right to respond quickly, and publicly. The damage to their reputation as an innovative, flexible and attractive career option for aspirational young workers has already been significant.  How leaders within Google manage this crisis over the next few weeks will be vital if they are to win back the confidence of smart, culturally-aware young consumers and workers.

Beyond the initial damage control and solving the most problematic aspects of workplace culture this highlights, Google is then at a crossroads faced by many huge organisations: How to change a workplace culture that is clearly not working for a vast number of their employees. After all, studies suggest that 75% of sexual misconduct goes unreported. The evidence indicates that this problem runs deeper than the stories that have so far emerged.

Google’s first line of defence makes sense, in some twisted traditional business culture way. Many companies - understandably - attempt to deal with sexual misconduct and harassment complaints through silence. This is a tried and tested way of dealing deal with the problem, based on the textbook management and PR mantra of old. However, something has shifted: In the age of interconnected communications, educated and empowered employees (particularly women), and the #Metoo movement, this unjust approach is no longer enough.

In the face of this monumental cultural shift, Google, and many other organisations of different scales, are facing a huge challenge. How do you change culture across an enormous organisation so that sexual harassment is simply not acceptable, ever? And, beyond that, how do you engender a culture where employees feel safe and supported to speak up where they face discrimination or harassment?

A large part of this is about leadership, from the very top down to individual line managers: Leaders at every level can co-create a strong, supportive workplace culture by stating their purpose, and, more importantly, acting it out day-to-day in the ways that they manage, and act themselves, within the workplace. They can state, and then model through their own behaviour, ethical workplace practice. And they can develop and attune their own emotional intelligence so they can help develop that of others.

What might this look like? It will vary from organisation to organisation, but Google’s core slogan - ‘Do the Right Thing’ - is a helpful guide. Don’t just say it: Live it. Where bullying is seen - tackle it. Provide training and a culture where emotional intelligence is valued. And whenever harassment complaints are made, pursue them, and act quickly on them.

Because in an age of #Metoo and engaged, active workforces like Google’s, anything less than that may no longer be good enough.