After the Walkout, Google’s Moment of Truth

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Google has reached what could very well be an existential moment of truth in its corporate history.

The recent global walkout of Google employees and contractors included more than 20,000 participants by current counts, and the final numbers are almost certain to be even higher. This puts total participation at something north of 20% of the entire firm — a remarkable achievement by the organizers.

Almost a month ago, when I posted my concerns regarding the path that this great company has been taking, and the associated impacts on both their employees and users (“The Death of Google” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/08/the-death-of-google), the sexual assault and harassment issues that were the proximate trigger for the walkout were not yet known publicly — not even to most Googlers.

These newly reported management failures clearly fit tightly into the same pattern of longstanding issues that I’ve frequently noted, and various broad concerns related to Google’s accountability and transparency that have been cited as additional foundational reasons for the walkout.

Google today — almost exactly twenty years since its founding — is at a crossroads. The decisions that management makes now regarding the issues that drove the walkout and other issues of concern to Googlers, Google’s users, and the world at large, will greatly impact the future success of the firm, or even how long into the future Google will continue to exist in a recognizable form at all.

That so many of these issues have reached the public sphere at around the same time — sexual abuse and harassment, Googlers’ concerns about military contracts and a secret project aimed at providing Chinese-government censored search, and more — should not actually be a surprise.

For all of these matters are symptomatic of larger problematic ethical factors that have crept into Google’s structure, and without a foundational change of direction in this respect, new concerns will inevitably keep arising, and Google will keep lurching from crisis to crisis.

The walkout organizers will reportedly be meeting with Google CEO Sundar Pichai imminently, and I fully endorse the organizers’ publicly stated demands.

But management deeds are needed — not just words. After a demonstration of this nature, it’s all too easy for conciliatory statements to not be followed by concrete and sustained actions, and then for the original status quo to reassert itself over time.

This is also a most appropriate moment for Google to act on a range of systemic factors that have led to transparency, accountability, and other problems associated with Google management’s interactions with rank-and-file employees, and between Google as a whole and its users. 

Regarding the latter point, since I’ve many times over the years publicly outlined my thoughts regarding the need for Google employees dedicated to roles such as ombudsperson, user advocates, and ethics officer (call the latter “Guardian of Googleyness” if you prefer), I won’t detail these crucial positions again here now. But as the walkout strongly suggests, these all are more critically needed by Google than ever before, because they all connect back to the basic ethical issues at the core of many concerns regarding Google.

These are all interconnected and interrelated matters, and attempts to improve any of them in isolation from the others will ultimately be like sweeping dirt under the proverbial rug — such problems are pretty much guaranteed to eventually reemerge with even more serious negative consequences down the line.

Google is indeed a great company. No firm can be better than its employees, and Google’s employees — a significant number of whom I know personally — have through their walkout demonstrated to the world something that I already knew about them. 

Googlers care deeply about Google. They want it to be the best Google that it possibly can be, and that means meeting high ethical standards vertically, horizontally, and from A to Z.

Now it’s Google’s management’s turn. Can they demonstrate to their employees, to Google’s users, and to the global community, that loyalty towards Google has not been misplaced?

We shall see.

–Lauren–