The Google employee walkout today over sexual harassment and inequality is a massive walkup call to management.
A memo sent by CEO Sundar Pichai Tuesday night, first obtained by Axios, seemed to get the point. But what could have been a moment of emotional intelligence wasn't, and that all came down to timing.
What sparked the walkout was the protective treatment Google extended to Andy Rubin after serious allegations over sexual misconduct, as the New York Times reported. The company kept things quiet and allowed Rubin to resign with a $90 million payout.
Pinchai's first reaction was to send an email last week after the Times story broke. In part it said:
We are dead serious about making sure we provide a safe and inclusive workplace. We want to assure you that we review every single complaint about sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct, we investigate and we take action.
In recent years, we've made a number of changes, including taking an increasingly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority: in the last two years, 48 people have been terminated for sexual harassment, including 13 who were senior managers and above. None of these individuals received an exit package.
That email actually highlighted a problem my colleague Minda Zetlin picked up on in it and the latest memo: a lack of transparency. When things are handled behind closed doors, they don't get fixed.
The newest memo included an apology and what seemed like contrition. Here are the first three paragraphs:
Since last week, I've heard from many of you. Some of you wrote me personally. Others have shared their thoughts with leaders and fellow Googlers. One thing that's become clear to me is that our apology at TGIF didn't come through, and it wasn't enough. We hear you.
So first, let me say that I am deeply sorry for the past actions and the pain they have caused employees. Larry mentioned this on stage last week, but it bears repeating: if even one person experiences Google the way the New York Times article described, we are not the company we aspire to be.
I understand the anger and disappointment that many of you 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.
That strikes more of a tone of emotional intelligence, particularly a note at the end that the company supported those walking out and that managers would be made aware of the activities.
All good, except for one thing: the timing. Here's how one person on Twitter put it.
All of the headlines that start with "Google CEO supports..." are focusing on the wrong thing.-- Liz Fong-Jones (@lizthegrey) November 1, 2018
What matters today is workers' voices and demands.
It doesn't matter whether management claims to support; the real test will be whether the demands are met. #GoogleWalkout
By apologizing before the walkout, Pichai effectively undercut it. The effect is to say, that Google already knows it, apologized, and will do better in the future.
Perhaps the company did this in part as a form of PR to reduce the impact of the protest. The stock had taken close to a 7 percent drop in the wake of the story last week.
But it does come across as self-serving and defensive to some degree, whether that was intended or not. What would have worked better was a note to indicate support for the marchers and a promise of a response the day after. Then the pressure would have been recognized. Google would have admitted that it was forces from without and from the employees that was pushing it to improved behavior.
In business as in comedy, timing is everything.