What the Google Walkouts Showed About Employer Branding

The walkout against sexual harassment at Google last Friday turned heads. Following an investigation by the New York Times revealing that Android co-founder Andy Rubin was paid a $90 million exit package after being credibly accused of sexual misconduct, employees walked out across Google’s global offices. The world watched as over 20,000 Googlers demanded better reporting, greater transparency, and the end of forced arbitration around sexual harassment. Their actions carried such weight in the broader conversation that some have called this a “new kind of activism.”

Sexual misconduct has been previously exposed at large and powerful Silicon Valley firms, so what made this event so unprecedented? As a company, Google represents the pinnacle of corporate culture and perks, offering everything from gourmet cafeterias to free time for side projects. So when more than 20 percent of Google’s workforce walked out in protest, they exposed a glaring gap in the company’s culture and exposed the employer brand the company had built over the decades. While backlash against harassment has often come in the form of lost revenue or negative press, the Google walkouts showed that employers who fail to engage cultural issues don’t just risk customer attrition or litigation. They risk losing large swaths of top talent, even if they’re Google.

How workplace activism is changing employer branding

According to the Deloitte 2018 Global Human Capital Trends, good citizenship and social responsibility are now an executive priority. Workers today have dramatically higher standards than they did a few decades or even a few years ago and holding companies accountable for their actions. As people become emboldened to speak up about the issues they care about, we are seeing that organizations that take firm stances on what is acceptable are building stronger employer brands. On the other hand, employers that are tone-deaf or disengaged to employee concerns risk high turnover, bad press, varying lawsuits, and difficult questions from numerous stakeholders.

In Silicon Valley, this is becoming more apparent than ever. We are now seeing a rise in demand for protective clauses against executive misconduct in tech mergers and acquisitions, following the resurgence of similar clauses in entertainment and finance. Uber has finally ended forced arbitration after long-standing issues with sexual harassment. Now that Google, long the frontrunner of innovative corporate culture, is being asked to make similar changes, company leaders need to realize that consumers and employees are more conscious and more powerful than before. Increasingly, your company’s business and talent depend less on the product or service itself, and more on the earnestness with which you advance corporate culture and social equity.

Tech corporations have focused a great deal on changing the world through innovation. But in the future of work, corporate culture and ethics can’t be a side project anymore. Companies at the forefront of technological innovation need to innovate everywhere, meaning that your company's culture and brand should be just as advanced and developed as the products you present on a stage.