Alphabet Settles Major Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Alphabet Settles Major Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
Photo: Bryan R. Smith, Getty Images

A yearlong lawsuit against Alphabet’s board of directors over allegations of shielding the sexual harassment has, at long last, come to a close. It’s a decision that, as one attorney on the plaintiff’s side said, will “fundamentally alter” the way Google’s parent company operates — and hopefully the way some of its senior staffers operate, too.

To give a quick recap: back in 2018, the New York Times published a pretty grisly exposé detailing the lengths Google’s board went in order to keep a select few high ranking employees comfortable, even after they were credibly accused of sexual harassment. Notoriously, former Android senior VP Andy Rubin allegedly cheated on his then-wife with Googlers that were — in at least one case — not only a direct employees, but direct employees that he pressured into sex. That decision (among others) would eventually lead to his quiet termination, but not before he picked up a $US90 ($128) million dollar exit package.

Just two years after Rubin’s case was swept under the rug, one of Google’s then-head execs on Search, Amit Singhal, was forced to resign after harassment allegations were pointed in his direction. Along with failing to go public with the reason for his departure, Google again paid Singhal tens of millions as part of his own exit package. When the allegations against him came to light, Singhal — then an engineer at Uber — denied the claims, but the ride-sharing company hauled him out anyway, just over a month after his hire was first announced.

Google employees the world over responded to the news of these exorbitant golden parachutes with some well-deserved rage. Thousands of workers from 20 of the company’s international offices walked off the job to protest the board’s tradition of shielding known harassers in its ranks, as well as Google’s policy of mandatory arbitration which kept employees from going public with their stories. The protests and waves of negative press that came with them got Google to finally allow victims of workplace harassment and assault have complaints against their alleged abusers heard in court.

Those changes didn’t stop a lawsuit from being filed against Alphabet’s board not long after the walkout by attorneys acting on behalf of the company’s own stockholders, who alleged the tech giant “violated their fiduciary duties” by paying out these huge sums to executives accused of abuse and then refusing to disclose these coverups were taking place.

“Defendants’ active participation in that culture — which allowed them to prioritise their own interests, and those of the Company’s powerful male executives, over their legal obligations — caused the Company significant harm,” the suit reads, before going on to explain that the bad press surrounding the company had led to its stock dropping more than 10%.

Now, Alphabet has agreed to settle the case, which for the company, also means some pretty serious expenses. But as the New York Times noted, the unusual settlement doesn’t direct funding back into shareholders’ pockets. Instead, the company will be putting $US310 ($442) million dollars towards hiring and retention of “historically underrepresented talent” over the next decade. Alongside that, Google’s VP of operations Eileen Naughton announced in a blog post today that the company will be overhauling the way it handles these allegations moving forward, even setting up a new advisory board to oversee those issues.

“Over the past several years, we have been taking a harder line on inappropriate conduct, and have worked to provide better support to the people who report it. Protecting our workplace and culture means getting both of these things right, and in recent years we’ve worked hard to set and uphold higher standards for the whole company,” Naughton wrote. “Recent years have involved a lot of introspection and work to make sure we’re providing a safe and inclusive workplace for every employee.”

“I’m grateful to everyone, especially our employees and shareholders, for providing us with feedback, and for making sure that the way we tackle these vital issues is better today than it was in the past,” she added, one imagines, through gritted teeth. Google has previously shown its gratitude towards employees with feedback about vital issues by firing them.

The post explains that Alphabet will also be expanding its previous policies that withheld severance pay from folks who were terminated for “any form of misconduct,” adding that the company will be “expanding the prohibition to anyone who is the subject of a pending investigation for sexual misconduct or retaliation.” Stipulated in the settlement as well is the formation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion board to be helmed largely by outside experts.

Perhaps the best outcome of the settlement, however, is that the long-held standard of forced arbitration for harassment, retaliation, and discrimination cases is officially out of the playbook for all of Alphabet’s many, many properties — not only Google.

All told Google got out of this relatively lightly. $US310 ($442) over a decade is a pittance for a firm raking in over $US46 ($66) billion annually. And as Daisuke Wakabayashi, the author of the inciting exposé, noted on Twitter, Larry Page has “never had to answer for his role” for sending Rubin on his way with a duffel bag of money. He probably never will. At least there are similar cases still pending against Alphabet both federally and in Delaware.