Two weeks ago, more than 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout in protest to how the company chose to pay millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of misconduct while staying silent about the transgressions. In response to the fallout, Google CEO publicly recognized how the company “clearly got some things wrong” and announced that the company would stop forcing employee harassment complaints into arbitration. A day later, Facebook proactively announced a similar policy, removing a practice that critics say has stacked the deck against victims of harassment for years. These two technology giants weren’t the first to do away with forced arbitration. Microsoft, Uber, and Lyft changed their arbitration policy in the last year.
Technology companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are famously known for disrupting industries with groundbreaking products, creating rich cultures and richer benefit packages, and challenging conventions. Despite these progressive and industry-shaping contributions to employee experiences, technology companies have not led the way in sexual harassment. Rather than promote fairness and transparency in the workplace, they have gone to considerable lengths to keep employee disputes out of the court system. Forcing employee complaints into arbitration has become as common as free lunches.
Arbitration is a private method of solving a dispute without a judge, jury, or right to an appeal. Companies that require forced arbitration waive their employees' right to sue and to participate in a class action lawsuit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has noted that forced arbitration “can prevent employees from learning about similar concerns shared by others in their workplace.”
It is clear why forced arbitration is an attractive option for businesses, but technology companies were supposed to be above the fray and make decisions on factors other than sales growth and profits. They recognize that employees are their most important asset, and as with all competitive advantages, they should protect and treat them with respect. In many ways, technology companies have historically advocated for workplace policies, from maternity leave to professional development, that are now becoming commonplace and improving the lives of employees everywhere. Although they strayed from employee-centric policies as it relates to sexual harassment and workplace misconduct, the actions of Google, Facebook, and others is a pivotal moment for corporate America. This is most evident by Airbnb and eBay, two other technology giants, eliminating forced arbitration while this blog was being written.
If there is a silver lining in Google’s poor response to workplace misconduct, it is that their policies and similar ones at other companies are being scrutinized. Groups like BuzzFeed and others are identifying companies that require and do not require forced arbitration, and in the interest of representing themselves as good stewards of employee rights, many companies are following the lead of Facebook and others. Similar to human resource policies popular in Silicon Valley, perhaps eliminating forced arbitration will spread to other industries and areas of the country.