Sexual harassment in the technology sector

Tech giants have been accused of having cultures that ignore or perpetuate harassment and gendered discrimination

As out-of-office responses go this one was sure to get people’s attention. A leaflet left on the desks of Google employees read: ‘Hi, I’m not at my desk because I’m walking out in solidarity with other Googlers and contractors to protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace culture that’s not working for everyone. I’ll be back later’.

Starting in Google’s Singapore office, the co-ordinated action saw employees and contractors walk out of 50 Google locations. Dubbed ‘Walkout for Real Change’, it was organised in response to the news that Google had fired 48 staff over the past two years as a result of alleged sexual harassment.

The walkout came with a set of demands: an end to forced arbitration, equal pay and opportunities, a publicly-disclosed sexual harassment transparency report (to include data on allegations and payoffs), a clear reporting process for sexual misconduct, the appointment of an employee representative to the board, and promotion of the chief diversity officer to answer directly to the CEO. Accompanying these demands was something else: a sense of frustration, or as the organisers of the walkout put it ‘we’ve had enough’.

In the year since the #MeToo movement first gained traction a host of revelations have emerged. But behind the hashtags and boycotts is enough being done to turn the cultural tide on sexual harassment at work? Were 20,000 Googlers justified in their frustrations? And are fast-growing sectors such as the tech industry struggling more than most to keep up with their ethical responsibilities?

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, describes the Google walkout as a timely reminder for the sector of the importance of transparency. “It now falls on Google and the sector to respond to and address the challenges not with words but with actions,” states Shaw. “Businesses must be open to public scrutiny that will force change at the pace required.”

Such change can be difficult to achieve in a sector brimming with start-ups, where the focus is on rapid growth, and where the culture is often shaped by maverick founders and strong CEOs. Shaw acknowledges the challenges faced by his industry around governance and structure. “Tech scale-ups can double their workforce every two years. This is therefore about getting systems and structures in place as early as possible that act for the betterment of employees and society, that are robust and dynamic, and that remain top of the agenda throughout the growth stage,” he says.

However, according to director of business ethics at GoodCorporation Jane Ellis, tech companies are not unique in their tendency to neglect corporate governance and ethics. “The cultures of most businesses… through their initial development stage generally reflect that of the founders. Such cultures are often very driven, have high expectations, and at times can be unforgiving.” Ellis adds the warning that: “A wise start-up will recognise that although it is possible to break the mould with a product, ignoring good governance and responsible management practices comes at a heavy price, and not just in terms of bad headlines.”

It would seem though that employers are starting to sit up and take heed of this bad press. In response to its employees’ demands Google immediately agreed to drop the practice of forced arbitration – rarely used in the UK but common in the US, which requires employees to settle disputes internally rather than in a court or tribunal – in cases of alleged sexual harassment. Facebook, eBay and Airbnb all followed suit.

Recent research by employment law firm GQ Littler provides some further positive news. Its Executive Employer Survey Europe 2018 revealed that in the year following the advent of #MeToo 71% of UK employers took action to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace, with 13% reopening historical allegations. Raoul Parekh, partner at GQ Littler, tells HR magazine that although the UK still needs to catch up with its European counterparts (88% of Spanish employers were found to have taken action), the figures are indicative of how seriously businesses now take the issue.

“It’s not so much that a lightbulb has gone on but that a dimmer switch has been turned up,” remarks Parekh. “These issues have always been taken seriously by businesses, but now you have the double effect of victims feeling empowered [by #MeToo] to raise issues and also of reports of sexual harassment being considered at a more senior level than they would have been two years ago.”

But while such actions tend to mitigate the risk for employers, real cultural change has to come from the top – something that won’t be easy in the tech sector says Helen Jamieson, managing director of HR and training consultancy Jaluch. “Not only do tech bosses have a tight grip within their own businesses, but most of the big names own hundreds of other tech companies too so the culture won’t be restricted to just one organisation.” Jamieson points out that Google’s parent company Alphabet owns 7% of Uber, whose own scandal-hit CEO Travis Kalanick had to step down amid criticism of its ‘bro culture’ and a wave of sexual harassment claims.

Because of the long shadow that founders and CEOs can cast in an organisation it is them and not HR who are responsible for cultural change, Jamieson insists. “HR are not always the moral compass. That is surely the role of the CEO who sets the direction and tone. The key is for HR to have and develop a fantastic relationship with the CEO and board so that they are in a position to support with cultural change,” she says.

That cultural change may be on the horizon. One week after the Google walkout the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai issued a memo responding (mostly in the affirmative) to its employees’ demands and accepting that the tech giant needed to do better. #MeToo had brought the Goliath Google to its knees proving perhaps that no workplace, no matter its size, is above taking sexual harassment seriously.

Shaw remains positive about the ability of his industry to meet its responsibilities. “The Google walkout is symbolic of the tech community’s ‘challenger’ mindset; to not accept the status quo and to drive change,” he says. “The tech sector has transformed industry globally by removing outdated systems. It’s now about doing the same with internal cultures and acting as a force for good.”