Last week, thousands of Google staffers walked out of their offices and into the streets in what is perhaps the largest collective protest of tech workers in history. The demonstration, which included Google offices across several continents, was sparked by reports that the company offered lucrative exit packages to multiple top executives accused of sexual misconduct. The impressive solidarity among Google’s workforce marked the industry’s big Time’s Up moment.
The “women’s walk” demonstration organisers demanded a number of changes to create a more inclusive and safe environment. Among their top demands is an improved process for reporting sexual harassment and assault, which Google on Thursday promised to at least partially address. But for thousands of contract workers contracted by Google, sources tell Gizmodo, the process is particularly frustrating and confusing, potentially discouraging contractors from filing complaints or otherwise raising concerns. And for contractors specifically, it does not appear Google has a plan to improve it anytime soon.
There just needs to be one clear course of action and some kind of peace or assurance that if you are a TVC, the status of your contract will not be in jeopardy if you report something.
On Thursday, CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email to all Google employees outlining a number of changes the company plans to roll out in response to the walkout and the organisers’ demands. This includes ending forced arbitration for individual claims of sexual harassment and assault, an improved process for reporting misconduct and improvements around mandatory sexual harassment training, and “more granularity around sexual harassment investigations and outcomes.” The company also held a town hall on Thursday for full-time Google employees. Temp workers, vendors, and contractors were excluded from Pichai’s email and not even allowed in the room during Google’s all-hands, according to one contractor.
“I had to read it in the press rather than directly from the CEO whose company I have worked for this past year,” a contractor told Gizmodo on Thursday.
About half of Google’s workforce is reportedly made up of temporary, vendor or contract employees, better known within the industry as TVCs. This includes individuals working on projects with full-time employees, as well as service workers like baristas, bus drivers, and cafe workers. These are not officially Google employees, and they don’t have the same benefits or job security as those who are, according to contractors who spoke with Gizmodo. In addition, contractors say, they have a separate process for reporting misconduct that may remove Google’s involvement entirely.
Two contractors currently doing work for Google, who spoke to Gizmodo on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, say the process is currently confusing and unfair to a workforce that feels more vulnerable than full-time Googlers. Neither of the contractors claimed they experienced or needed to report sexual misconduct, but both expressed frustration over the current reporting process, characterising it as difficult to navigate. They also said they fear that reporting any misconduct could negatively impact their employment status despite the company’s reassurance of non-retaliation.
One contractor said their impression of Google was not one of obvious negligence or misguided priorities. Instead, they said it continues to maintain a system that may present roadblocks for contract workers.
“I think Google would say ... ‘We want to protect women, we want to protect people, reporting sexual harassment would not jeopardise your contract,’” they said, adding that it’s common for contractors to know someone on their team whose contract was cut short or not renewed without a stated reason. “There’s just some inconsistencies about what Google says and what Google does, especially around TVC issues.”
In response to a New York Times article published last month detailing how Google reportedly kept quiet sexual misconduct allegations against several executives, CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email directed to the full Google staff with the subject line “Reporting and investigating harassment.” He included a few lines explaining how workers can find more information on how to raise concerns through internal tools.
One contractor told Gizmodo that TVCs have a separate anonymous web portal for workplace concerns. “There’s a couple things to click on, it’s not super clear what to click on first,” the contractor said of the portal. “I have no visibility of where this goes, how things happen.”
According to screenshots obtained by Gizmodo of Google’s support page for raising workplace harassment issues, individuals should first raise their concerns to their the staffing agency, not to Google itself. If an incident involves another TVC, the page explains, Google will inform the contractor’s employer. If it involves a Google employee, Google states that it “will ensure the appropriate team addresses the matter and follow up with you once our process is complete.”
This page also includes contact information for an anonymous helpline as well as a section ensuring individuals that they will not face retaliation for raising a concern. “This means Google won’t take action that has an adverse impact on someone just for reporting or participating in an investigation of a possible violation of our Code of Conduct, Google policy, or the law,” it states.
An email from one contractors’ staffing agency obtained by Gizmodo aligns with Google’s policy, stating that the TVC should not contact their manager at Google if they needed to file a claim and instead contact an HR email associated with the agency. Google works with a number of different staffing agencies, and one contractor said that the way TVCs are treated within the company “feels very inconsistent.”
“There just needs to be one clear course of action and some kind of peace or assurance that if you are a TVC, the status of your contract will not be in jeopardy if you report something,” they said.
They are our employees, not Google’s.
A representative at Crowdstaffing, one of the staffing agencies that works with Google, told Gizmodo that it has its own employee handbook and policies and serves as the contractor’s primary contact, including for filing workplace complaints. The representative said that at some point in the complaint process, they might loop in a client, such as Google, but that would happen “at a later stage,” after they perform their own analysis assessment.
“That’s designed simply as a way to ensure that we are the ones providing support,” the representative said. “They are our employees, not Google’s.”
The agency’s spokesperson noted that over the last several years, Crowdstaffing has employed over 1,000 people at Google, and while contractors have brought up various topics over the course of their assignment, such as pay, the agency has “never had a sexual harassment case.”
“We have had maybe one or two situations where we’ve had workers just perhaps not get along with certain team members in the organisation,” the representative said, adding that this is “not to say [sexual misconduct complaints] don’t exist, but from my perspective, it’s been a pretty good situation there.”
The Google organisers’ specifically demanded “a clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously” — one that includes TVCs. The confusing, disjointed process of filing complaints hardly inspire faith in a system designed to protect and assure a company’s workers, a contractor said, especially its most vulnerable.
“There was no communication about the TVC reporting process in any of Sundar’s emails, anything from my manager, or anything in team meetings,” one contractor told Gizmodo.
Asked for comment on whether the policies it rolled out on Thursday apply to TVCs, Google referred Gizmodo to a quote from an internal announcement, dated November 8, which asserts that Google holds the staffing agencies it works with to its standards. It reads:
T-V-Cs are an important part of our extended community. We investigate all matters in which a complaint is made by a T-V-C against an employee, and require that suppliers do the same for complaints against T-V-Cs, and report back to us on any complaints. In addition, we recently broadened the reach of our Supplier Code of Conduct and require Google suppliers to “demonstrate a commitment to identify, measure, and improve a culture of diversity and inclusion through all aspects of workplace management.” This contractual agreement also holds suppliers accountable for maintaining “a program that provides workers with a means to report grievances anonymously and without fear of retaliation, unless prohibited by law”. We’ll continue routinely reviewing our suppliers for adherence with these provisions. For those suppliers that employ Google’s T-V-Cs, we’ll consider the findings from these reviews in evaluating whether to continue our supplier relationships.
In response to Pichai’s announcement on Thursday that Google would improve its process for reporting sexual harassment for full-time employees, the walkout organisers said the steps were promising but did not meet all their demands. They also emphasised the need to improve the process for TVCs in a Medium post published Thursday evening, which states that TVCs “perform essential roles across the company, but receive few of the benefits associated with tech company employment. They are also largely people of colour, immigrants, and people from working class backgrounds.”
Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist at Google and one of the walkout organisers, said in the post: “We demand a truly equitable culture, and Google leadership can achieve this by putting employee representation on the board and giving full rights and protections to contract workers, our most vulnerable workers, many of whom are Black and Brown women.”
While both contractors we spoke with agreed with the numerous demands outlined by the walkout organisers, they say that some full-time employees may not fully grasp how tenuous their positions feel. One of the contractors said that during the walkout in New York, they overheard other contractors — you can easily identify them by their red badges — pointing out that their job insecurity, and how that impacts their motivation to report misconduct, wasn’t really addressed during the walkout or in the press.
“I feel like they covered the necessities,” a contractor said, adding that a clear line on how contractors can raise workplace concerns isn’t “a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.”