Image courtesy of Carlos Luna via Flickr.

Staff at Google offices around the world have staged a series of walkouts and demonstrations targeting workplace culture and the company’s treatment of women.

The employees are demanding several key changes in how sexual misconduct allegations are dealt with at the firm, including a call to end forced arbitration – a move which would make it possible for victims to sue.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai has told staff he supports their right to take the action.

“I understand the anger and disappointment that many of you feel,” he said in an all-staff email. “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.”

Google staff in Singapore, Zurich, London, Tokyo, Berlin and New York were among those to take part. Employees were urged to leave notes on their desks telling colleagues:

“I’m not at my desk because I’m walking out with other Googlers and contractors to protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace culture that’s not working for everyone.”

At least 100 staff protested at the Singapore hub, with greater numbers appearing in New York, Zurich and Israel.

The Walkout for Real Change protest comes a week after the news leaked that Google gave a £70 million severage package to Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android mobile phone software, but hid details of the misconduct allegations that led to his departure.

Campaigners have posted a list of five demands, including an end to pay and opportunity inequality as well as greater transparency about sexual harassment. These include an end to Forced Arbitration in cases of discrimination, a commitment to end pay inequity, a publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report and a globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and responsibly.

Finally, they wish to elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations to the board of directors.

Ben Black, CEO at My Family Care comments:

Interesting that this has happened at Google.  Google has done and continues to do more than almost any other global employer to be the kind of business where talent can flourish irrespective of gender, or race or background.  The walkout illustrates just how seriously employer need to start taking gender pay gap challenges.  But perhaps Google is the perfect mirror for society as a whole.  There will only be fairness between the sexes when society makes some big changes as well – when misogynistic banter isn’t tolerated anywhere, when it’s ok for men to hold their hands up as carers as well as leaders.

Kate Palmer, Associate Director at Peninsula adds:

As more and more allegations of sexual harassment and inequality are uncovered, the sight of workers taking matters into their own hands to address the situation may become increasingly more common.

Whilst employers with the size and popularity of Google may be able to handle a number of employees ‘downing-tools’ on a one off basis, they will certainly not want to make a habit of this. Meanwhile, smaller businesses, with less resources, stand to be disproportionally affected if a significant number of staff decide to take similar action, affecting their ability to meet client demands.

As news of this walk-out made international headlines, employers should treat these actions as a wakeup call of the type of reputational damage that can occur if they fail to address serious issues in the workplace. Arguably, damage may be heightened by the fact that the employees of the organisation are standing together and opposing management of those responsible for their employment.

Throughout this strike action the message of Google’s staff has been one of frustration at a workplace culture which allegedly facilitates sexual harassment and gender inequality. Unfortunately, employers can have the tendency to overlook workplace cultures in favour of productivity and profit, however this approach often reveals itself as detrimental in the long term.

Instead it pays to have clear workplace policies on bullying and harassment, supported by reliable grievance reporting methods, to protect employees from mistreatment. When it comes to ensuring equality, businesses must also guarantee that all promotion decisions will be fair and based on merit, using pre-determined selection criteria to reduce the risk of gender bias.