When they walked out of their jobs by the thousands on Thursday, Google employees did more than bring attention to the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations.
They put an intense public spotlight on the acute shortcomings of the company’s top brass.
Executives at Google, and its parent company Alphabet, didn’t just let gender discrimination fester at the tech giant. In some cases, they enabled it. And then, when employee rage over what they’d done sparked the largest protest ever seen at the company — and perhaps at any tech firm ever — top managers were nowhere to be seen.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai was attending a tech conference in New York, on the other side of the country from the company’s headquarters, which represented the epicenter of the walkout. And Alphabet CEO Larry was … well, who knows?
It would be bad enough if this were the only issue that Page and company had handled poorly lately. But it’s not. From a significant security breach, to the company’s anticompetitive behavior, to its efforts to develop a censored search engine in China and artificial intelligence technologies for the US military, Google’s top brass has been fumbling issue after issue in recent months.
Throughout many of these controversies, Page has been absent from the public scene; he hasn’t made a public appearance or spoken on behalf of the company in years.
However, the company is suffering from more than just a leadership vacuum. The way it’s handled its recent trials has made its executives look amoral, myopic, reckless, and even incompetent.
Alphabet needs new leadership, particularly at the very top. But that’s the crux of its problem. Because his particular shares of Alphabet give him outsized voting rights, Page has almost no accountability to shareholders or anyone else. There’s almost no way to force him out without his consent.
So we’re likely stuck with him for the foreseeable future. That’s bad news for the company and investors, but also — because Alphabet is so large and so influential — for the rest of us.
The walkout that highlighted the company’s executive deficiencies was sparked by an article last week in The New York Times about how the company handled sexual misconduct allegations made against high-level employees. In particular, the article focused on Andy Rubin, who helped invent the Android operating system.
A former girlfriend of Rubin who had been one of his subordinates when he was running Google’s Android effort charged that he had pressured her into oral sex after their relationship had ended, according to the report. Google ended up finding the charges credible and forced Rubin out — but not before it agreed to give him a $90 million severance package, The Times reported.
That result was remarkable only because of its size, according to the Times. Google routinely protected or gave large payouts to high-ranking officials accused of sexual misconduct. And when conflicts arose between top-level managers and underlings with whom they were having relationships, the underlings were the ones who frequently lost out, according to the report.
Indeed, the company’s willingness to accommodate sexual harassment seems to have been widespread. At the protests on Thursday, numerous women got up and told stories about how they had been sexually harassed at the company. Organizers of the protest said they had collected hundreds of such stories on an internal website.
Beyond the walkout
But Google’s leadership failings can be seen well outside the controversy over its handling of gender discrimination issues.
Take the recent security vulnerability at Google+. The company had known about the vulnerability, which exposed the private information of hundreds of thousands of users, for some seven months. But it chose not to acknowledge the bug, because, reportedly, it didn’t want to draw the attention of regulators.
It was happy to let Facebook continue to take a beating over its Cambridge Analytica security scandal and didn’t want to take its own lumps for a similar situation. Public relations, it seems, was more important to the company than informing and protecting its customers.
Company officials have a growing track record of similar expediency. For months now, they’ve been publicly denying that Google is particularly far along in developing a censored search engine for China. But the Intercept recently put the lie to those denials, publishing company documents that showed it was further along and more serious about launching the service than officials had acknowledged.
Something similar happened with Project Maven, the US defense department effort to tap into artificial intelligence technologies, particular computer vision, to improve its weapons systems. Not only did Google stay quiet about its involvement in the project, but it’s work with the government was much more extensive than it initially acknowledged, including working with the military to develop technology that could spy on entire cities, Gizmodo reported.
Meanwhile, the payout to Rubin and others accused of harassment aren’t the only examples of Page and company rewarding those accused of bad behavior. Page personally fought to keep and reward Anthony Levandowski, who helped spearhead Google’s self-driving car effort, even though he skirted company rules and set up personal companies that could have potentially competed with Google, according to a recent report in the New Yorker.
Levandowski’s flaunting of the company’s rules governing its autonomous vehicles even led to an accident that seriously injured a coworker and caused a collision with another vehicle, according to that report. But Page made sure he remained highly compensated and had Google buy the companies he set up outside of Google, the New Yorker reported.
Truth and consequences
These controversies have had real consequences for the company. Its handling of the sexual harassment claims led to Thursday’s walkout. Employees have been up in arms over over its involvement in Maven and its development of the censored search engine, and numerous workers have left the company over them. And it faces lawsuits and government investigations over its handling of the Google+ vulnerability.
This evidence of mismanagement is coming amid growing scrutiny of Google’s power and accountability by policymakers. In just the last two years, the company has been hit with two multibillion-dollar fines from the European Commission for engaging in anticompetitive behavior and faces another potentially costly fine in a third such investigation. US policymakers have been shining a spotlight on Google — along with Facebook and Twitter — over concerns that Russia and other countries are attempting again to disrupt American elections by hijacking the companies’ networks and online ad systems to spread propaganda and misinformation.
Normally a company facing even just one of these scandals would put its CEO out front to be its public spokesperson. Part of a typical CEO’s role is to reassure investors, soothe regulators, and calm employees. It’s usually the CEO’s job to take responsibility on behalf of his or her corporation in such instances, and to show that he or she will be accountable for them and for the company’s response.
But Larry Page seems to have missed that memo. Instead of being the face of Alphabet amid all these controversies, he’s been AWOL.
Page infamously didn’t show up in September when the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the heads of the top social networking companies to come and testify at a hearing about foreign interference in US elections. Senators on the committee took note of his absence, and the absence of Brin and Pichai, and took the company to task for it.
But the only thing that was really notable about Page’s absence at that hearing was just how obvious it was. Although he apparently has met with employees on occasion behind Alphabet’s closed doors, he’s been a public no-show for years.
In his stead, Pichai has become the face of the company. Pichai was the one who released a statement apologizing to employees for how the company handled harassment allegations, for example.
But even he has left a vacuum. He too ducked the Senate hearing in September. And instead of being in Mountain View to meet with protestors on Thursday, he was chatting with Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin.
This leadership problem would be one thing if Alphabet were a simple startup. But it’s not. It’s one of the most powerful companies on the face of the planet. It employs tens of thousands of people. It has a monopoly or the dominant position in multiple markets. It’s amassed a vast amount of data on billions of the world’s citizens. And in a very real way, it shapes what we think and know about the world around us.
The women at the company who’ve had to contend with the company’s frequent indifference to sexual harassment deserve new leadership at Alphabet. But so do the rest of us.