Home >industry >Google’s employee-run email list tracks bias complaints

San Francisco: At most companies, if you think you’ve witnessed sexual harassment, sexism, bigotry or racism, there’s one way to get it addressed: going to human resources. At Google, there’s another way to air your grievance: submitting your complaint to an employee-run message board that’s curated into a weekly email.

The list, called “Yes, at Google," is a grassroots effort to collect anonymous submissions at Google and parent Alphabet Inc. and communicate them across the company, according to five current employees who receive the emails. “Yes, at Google" tracks allegations of unwelcome behaviour at work in an attempt to make the company more inclusive, said the employees, who did not want to be named because they were not authorized to speak about internal company matters. Since starting in October, more than 15,000 employees—20% of the company’s workforce—have subscribed, according to two of those people.

Google management is aware of the list. “We work really hard to promote and preserve a culture of respect and inclusion," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “Our employees have numerous ways to raise issues—both negative and positive—with us, including through grassroots transparency efforts like this one. We take concerns seriously and take appropriate measures to address them."

The list is run by a group of workers across different product areas, according to a person familiar with the list, though it’s not clear who runs the list and how or whether the submissions are vetted before being distributed.

Usually, the people in the complaints are not named, though one submission described an instance when, during a large company meeting in late April, Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt allegedly interrupted chief financial officer Ruth Porat when she had a question addressed to her, which the post categorized as a “gender-related" complaint. A person who attended the meeting said Schmidt answered the question to make a joke. Messages sometimes include job titles and other details.

Google, along with other tech companies, is facing growing pressure from diversity advocates and the media to change the gender and racial makeup of its workforce, which is largely white and Asian men. But inside company walls, employees are also speaking up about what they see as unfair treatment. The weekly email—whose title is meant to suggest that yes, these things happen at Google, even if you don’t see them—is one way employees are pushing for awareness and change.

Google management doesn’t control or influence the content, though the list’s organizers sometimes ask teams or particular employees to respond to an item before publication, according to a person familiar with the list who was not authorized to speak about it. Executives have touted the list internally as a way that Google is trying to make its workplace welcome to all kinds of employees. In February, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a widely read blog post detailing alleged sexual harassment and other mistreatment at Uber (in response to Fowler’s allegations, Uber is conducting an internal investigation into its workplace culture). After her post, a group of Google vice-presidents sent staff an email that listed resources that might help prevent similar things happening at Google. “Yes, at Google" was included as a resource.

A dispatch from early May viewed by Bloomberg listed dozens of alleged incidents. One person reported a manager to HR for allegedly “joking about raping one of his direct reports," the email said. “He was promoted."

Another allegation: “A colleague started a meeting off by making a joke that called a woman in the adjacent meeting room ‘some random bitch.’"

In another, a writer alleges that a “Noogler"—new Googler—was invited by an engineer to get drinks with a group of colleagues off campus. It was her second week of work. “Upon arriving, discovered there was no group," the email said. “Subsequently informed by the engineer that she was expected to ‘sleep with everyone’ because that’s the culture here." The message was accompanied by this note from the newsletter operators: “Per the Employee Relations Team, this is an example of the kind of issue that we need and want to look into as this behaviour is unacceptable and contrary to our Code of Conduct and Policy Against Harassment." The email urged anyone who knows of the identity of the people involved or the time and place it occurred to share it with the company, “so we can look into this matter and address it appropriately."

The email also refers to some alleged incidents as examples of when employees should formally raise concerns with the company. “A male Googler drank excessively at an offsite event and touched a few different female Googlers in a manner that made them uncomfortable, made inappropriate comments, and followed two women back to their hotel room and told them ‘I’m following you,’" the email said. “Thanks to Googlers who came forward with information about these incidents, we investigated, substantiated the concerns and terminated the Googler’s employment." Google management will try to respond to some complaints if they are specific enough, according to a person familiar with the list.

A list like “Yes, at Google" introduces business risks, said Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. If a submission were proven libelous, that could be a legal complication for the company. And having a fifth of a company’s workforce reading a weekly collection of complaints could amplify discontent among employees, he said.

In 2014, Google became one of the first high-profile tech companies to release employee diversity figures, starting an industry trend. The company’s proportions have not improved much in three years—81% of its technical staff is male, as of last year, and less than 6% are races other than Asian or white. Google runs implicit bias training internally aimed at addressing some of subtle forms of prejudice that persist inside workplaces.

Google is currently under investigation by the US department of labour for alleged systemic pay discrimination against its female employees. Google denied the allegations and said that its yearly analysis of pay across men and women found no gender pay gap.

“Yes, at Google" wouldn’t be the first time employees at the search giant organized to raise awareness about perceived inequality. In 2015, Erica Joy Baker, then a site reliability engineer at the company, started a spreadsheet where employees could submit their salaries and titles to compare them against others. She said that she was called into meetings and told that upper managers were not pleased with the spreadsheet’s existence. She quit in 2015 for a job at workplace chat service Slack. “ Our policy is not to comment on individual or former employees, but we can confirm that we regularly run analysis of compensation, promotion, and performance to ensure that they are equitable with no pay gap. Employees are free to share their salaries with one another if they choose," Google said in a statement regarding salary-sharing in 2015.

The “Yes, at Google" newsletter is less than eight months old but has picked up subscribers and interest in the past few months as other companies have faced more public allegations of sexual harassment. Google also faced blowback in February when Uber said it asked for the resignation of Amit Singhal, a senior executive, after discovering he was the subject of a sexual harassment claim when he worked at Google. Singhal denied the allegation.

Not all the complaints in the Google mailing list include allegations of misconduct such as sexual harassment. Other entries allege workplace comments that might not be obviously offensive to everyone but made some employees uncomfortable, said the current employees. One submission calls out a comment someone wrote in an internal referral that a job candidate “is definite [sic] one of the smartest girls I’ve met." Another: “Coworker to me: ‘You know why the schools in Pleasanton are so good, right? Because of all the Chinese people.’" One employee said that the hairdressers who work at the Google campus sometimes say, “I’ve never encountered hair like yours before," which the employee said “comes across as code for ‘I’m not trained to cut the hair of people of your race.’"

One employee said that during a one-on-one performance review with a manager, he was told that his rating dropped from “Exceeds" to “Meets" because he didn’t get as much done while on paternity leave. In another, a female subordinate said that her manager asked her to do work that he then took credit for when passing on the work to a higher-ranking director. A female employee was allegedly called a “princess" for favouring salad over burgers. Another employee claims that new desks at a particular office location only come designed for right-handed workers.

The mailing list also includes actions or changes that employees found praiseworthy, according to staff that have viewed them. The drinks menu at weekly all-hands meetings were updated to include a wider range of non-alcoholic beverages, and the men’s restrooms in the San Francisco offices have menstruation products to accommodate men who have periods. When YouTube rolled out a data tool with a name that some employees outside the US found offensive, the name was quickly changed.

Cappelli, the management professor, said that despite the risks that such a list poses, a collection of complaints from employees is also a valuable resource for management—especially about sensitive topics that employees may be reluctant to talk about. Keeping an eye on a list similar to Google’s “could be a pretty smart thing for an employer to do," he said. “You can find out stuff that’s going on without having to do surveys. Employees don’t necessarily trust hotlines, and they certainly don’t always trust going to their supervisor with problems." Bloomberg

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