Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR
Google has a PR problem, and it’s standing right outside the corporate offices waving signs and wearing Google ID badges. The optics of thousands of Google employees worldwide stepping out to protest for any reason will generate challenging headlines. The fact that what these employees are protesting connects directly to a prevailing cultural trend guarantees widespread media attention.
According to the protesters, Google “mishandled” allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at executives in the company. In the opinion of these employees, Google is not doing enough to right that perceived wrong, so they took to the streets. Mass protests were held in San Francisco, Singapore, London, Dublin, and Tokyo, among other large cities across the globe. Top-paid engineers were among those who walked off the job in protest. While the protests themselves only lasted an hour, the images generated could haunt Google for some time.
At some locations, protesters led chants with megaphones, while others chose to pack into conference rooms or lobbies. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, media mics caught one organizer, Vicki Holland, calling out, “Time is up on systemic racism. Time is up on abuses of power… Enough is enough!”
At times, the short but expansive protests had the feel of political rallies, with workers showing support for the termination of a culture they say “permeates” the company. Some protesters seemed acutely aware that the world was watching. Speaking to the Associated Press, Google employee Tanuja Gupta said Google had a responsibility to set a better example. “We have the eyes of many companies looking at us… We’ve always been a vanguard company, so if we don’t lead the way, nobody else will.”
While some wondered if there would be backlash in general over the protests or specific consequences for employees who spoke to the media, Google CEO Sundar Pichai tried to allay those fears. “I understand the anger and disappointment that many … feel… I feel it as well, and I am fully committed to making progress on an issue that has persisted for far too long in our society … and, yes, here at Google, too.”
In his comments, Pichai apologized for the company’s “past actions” while vowing to set a different trajectory and create a different culture going forward. Instead of punishing employees for speaking out – and risking even worse optics – Pichai chose to side with the protesters, saying more needed to be done and Google was just the company to do it.
That strong stance sets Google in position to be the industry leader its products and scope show it to be. Pichai also did well to admit the company did have some issues in the past. His comments empathized with the aggrieved employees and he committed to make some changes. That offers a level of accountability the protesters, and everyone watching, can hold him too.