Erik Nesler: How the #MeToo movement is shaping corporate America

Thursday, November 15, 2018 - 4:50pm

Erik Nesler

Erik Nesler Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily

A few weeks ago, thousands of Google employees from across the globe staged what the media is calling a walkout. Employees refused to work as they protested the company’s treatment of sexual assault claims. The walkout was in direct response to a scathing piece published by The New York Times which detailed Google’s track record of protecting high-profile executives, even after determining the sexual harassment claims against them were credible.  

The piece looked closely at Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android mobile software. An employee accused Rubin of sexual misconduct after he coerced her into performing oral sex in a hotel room in 2013. Google chose to investigate and ultimately concluded that her claim was credible. Andy Rubin was subsequently asked to leave the firm — but not without a $90 million exit package. The Times reported in the same piece that Rubin was one of three executives that Google protected over the past decade after they were accused of sexual misconduct.

Employees, disappointed with a culture that they felt protected perpetrators of sexual misconduct, began communicating with each other to stage a protest. Walkout organizers generated a list of demands on how Google (which at one point in time boasted the motto: Don’t be evil) should not only handle sexual misconduct, but how it should also improve its culture. 

The demands included ending the use of private arbitration in sexual misconduct issues and publicizing a transparency report which detailed instances of sexual harassment. Beyond issues relating specifically to sexual harassment (though they are complicatedly intertwined), the organizers asked for an employee representative on Google's Board of Directors and a chief diversity officer to speak directly to the board.

The walkout at Google is the latest instance of the #MeToo movement’s effect on corporate America. Started 12 years ago by Tarana Burke and having gained attention nearly a year ago with the public humiliation of film producer Harvey Weinstein after he was accused of rape and sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement has come a long way. Many powerful men have been forced out of their cushy executive-level jobs. Just a few weeks ago, Leslie Moonves stepped down as CEO of CBS after accusations of sexual harassment were publicly disclosed.

The #MeToo movement has generated awareness regarding the prevalence and severity of sexual harassment in organizations spanning all sectors. Organizations have been forced to either design or adopt mechanisms that minimize the amount of workplace harassment. Many companies have set up independent, anonymous helplines that give employees the opportunity to report misconduct without fear of immediate repudiation. While these mechanisms may prove useful in the short term, The Economist suggests in a piece titled “American business and #MeToo” that sexual harassment is “a symptom of bigger, subtler problems: unequal access to power and unaccountable cultures.”

The walkout organizers at Google had the right idea with their demands that extended beyond calling for change in how the company handles instances of sexual harassment. Their last two demands (an employee representative on the board and a more influential chief diversity officer) work toward transforming the company’s culture — ideally making it more inclusive and accountable.

Greater employee input at the executive level would benefit not only individuals commonly associated with the #MeToo movement, but instead, a host of people with other identities found throughout the company’s ranks. Gillian White writes in The Atlantic that the #MeToo movement has “been centered on the experiences of white, affluent and educated women.” Avoiding this fault, the walkout organizers intelligently used the momentum generated from the #MeToo backlash over Andy Rubin to call for greater involvement from all employees — regardless of not only gender and rank, but of race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class too.

While it is still uncertain to what demands Google will completely concede, the walkout should serve as an inspiration to employees seeking to work in safer, more accountable and more inclusive environments. Employees, when acting together, can hold significant leverage over their employers. Employees need to make it known that they are a stakeholder to be reckoned with.

Erik Nesler can be reached at egnesler@umich.edu.

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