Google’s $310 million sexual misconduct settlement aims to set new industry standards

Google parent company Alphabet has agreed to more than eighty updates or changes to its procedures and policies around sexual harassment and misconduct as part of an extensive legal settlement.

The overhaul is meant to fill gaps that executives allegedly exploited to engage in sexual misconduct or harassment, and to serve as an example for other Silicon Valley tech companies. The settlement, which includes $310 million devoted to new diversity, equality and inclusion measures, comes after a group of shareholders accused the leadership team of mishandling employee complaints of sexual misconduct and discrimination.

If the settlement is approved by a judge, it will be the largest such commitment among tech companies, beating Intel’s $300 million diversity commitment it made in 2015. In an email to employees, CEO Sundar Pichai encouraged them to read the highlights of the settlement, saying “I hope these commitments will serve as a strong signal to all of you that we are not going back in time.”

The company publicly disclosed some of the terms, including “five guiding principles,” in a blog post on Friday. But the much more expansive settlement filing, which spans 177 pages, lays out dozens of updates or changes to its policies, ranging from hiring, governance, internal investigations and disciplinary processes.

The filing shows structural gaps executives with power were allegedly able to exploit, as well as existing policies they allegedly bypassed. “The excuse has always been that these were just a few bad apples,” said Julie Goldsmith Reiser, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, referring to Google’s defense and as well as broader Silicon Valley. “This is the first time they’re saying in detail ‘it’s bigger than that and we aren’t going to allow this.”

The parties wanted to use the settlement as an opportunity not only for Google to meet basic structural demands, but also to set a tone for the tech industry, which has been among the industries most plagued by transgressions and power differences during the “Me Too” era, according to documents and conversations with the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Over the last two years, Silicon Valley employees complaining of power differentials have spurred mass events and bad press for companies — the largest being the 2018 Google walkout, in which more than 20,000 Google employees walked out of offices worldwide to protest multimillion-dollar payouts to executives accused of sexual misconduct or harassment as they left the company.

One of the most significant terms in the settlement is limiting the use of non-disclosure agreements for Google employees, which had been a point of contention among employees in discrimination and harassment cases at Google and beyond.

Companies originally used NDAs to prevent trade secrets, but they’ve gradually expanded to cover a blanket of topics, including workplace conditions, which critics say silences victims and enables perpetrators. Under the settlement terms, workers can now discuss facts of cases related to harassment or discrimination. In addition, employees can now bring someone with them when they report complaints as support and to bear witness to the conversations.

The company also agreed to make arbitration — a practice that prevents employees from taking cases to court and has been criticized for suppressing victims’ testimonies — optional for all Alphabet workers, including contractors and employees at the company’s “Other Bets” divisions like Waymo self-driving cars. Following the 2018 walkout, the company said it would end forced arbitration, but the provision only applied to full employees at Google.

The corporate governance updates, which include a number of new oversight committees and regular reports and training programs for Google’s board members and executives, were designed to be “best in class,” filing materials show. There will also be training for HR staff, investigators and managers on subjects such as empathetic listening, clarifying relationship standards, proper off-site behavior and alcohol consumption, the filing shows.

Google’s $310 million fund nearly doubles its recent $175 million commitment toward Black businesses and leadership diversity, although it’s not immediately clear whether there will be overlap. A new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council will be responsible for overseeing a wide array of issues, including hiring and retaining people from underrepresented groups, as well as tracking investigation outcomes, pay equity, and retaliation cases. The group is required to meet at least once a quarter.

The Chief Diversity Officer won’t be the only person publicly held responsible for the commitments, either — a departure from the commonplace standards in Silicon Valley. CEO Sundar Pichai, Google’s global affairs chief Kent Walker, and core engineering SVP Jen Fitzpatrick are all expected to hold an accountability role in the DEI Council’s diversity initiatives.

Google’s $310 million sexual misconduct settlement aims to set new industry standards via @MasterMindUpdate
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