Corporate Protestors are a GRC Issue
Corporate Protestors are a GRC Issue

The Google Walkouts – The Next Stage for #MeToo and GRC

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How is the #MeToo movement driving demand for greater personal accountability from both workers and management?

In my previous post, recapping the SCCE’s 17th Annual Compliance and Ethics Institute conference in Las Vegas, I touched briefly on the Google walkouts that happened in late October, and wanted to take a closer look at why I believe they’re events that will have lasting impact in the GRC space.

I mentioned the walkout in the context of personal accountability, precisely because there was a lack of focus on that topic at the conference. There was consensus at the conference that setting a foundation for a culture of ethics requires three main things:

  • Process: There must be a top-down and bottom-up approach to ethics.
  • Technology: It’s an enabler for those organizations trying to provide maturity and visibility into the performance of their ethics and compliance programs.
  • People: Because employees are your largest source of risk, the education of your employees is paramount in protecting your organization.

Personal accountability is the logical fourth foundational element here because it’s the natural analog to the top-down / bottom-up dynamic. If pressure is not applied from both sides now, there can be no balance to the ethics equation.

Just as importantly, we’re seeing growing awareness that the consequences of breaches in compliance should be levied on the person who is responsible for the breach, or the executive who is ultimately responsible for that area of the business. Whether employees or managers, they should have been more aware of the vulnerability or prevented it altogether.

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Getting militant about personal accountability

So, the question on the Google walkout is not so much whether employees are getting militant about accountability and compliance (it sure does look that way), but whether we’re beginning to see strong bottom-up pressures equal to top-down pressures coming from management?

To be sure, the Google walkouts were inspired by internal concerns. The New York Times exposé that revealed how Bruce Rubin, creator of the Android platform, had been asked to resign over a sexual harassment allegation and was awarded $900 million on his way out the door was what set things off.

Long-simmering grievances at Google over similar cases, however, contributed to the organization-wide outrage that was just looking for a channel to express itself.

At the same time, the walkouts were carried out very much in the context of the #MeToo movement. Take a look at some of the media coverage, protest signs, and remarks made at the events, and you’ll understand that these were very much women’s rights protests: lead by women, advocating gender equality.

A movement led by women takes a new turn

What was different here was that the walkouts drew out such a large swath of the internet giant’s global workforce. Again, look at the media coverage: from Tokyo to Zurich to Mountain View, you’ll see a strong male presence at these events. Yes, there’s a heavy male orientation to Google’s workforce 69% to 31% according to the company’s Diversity Report, but this was not a female-exclusive phenomenon. It was worldwide, and represented many diverse cultures. That’s new, and significant.

Much of public narrative around #MeToo as it’s played out in the workplace over the past year is that men of prominence have lost their jobs after being credibly found to have engaged in inappropriate behavior toward women. In many cases, the organizations in question have gone beyond simple dismissal, and have worked to remedy gender imbalance by putting qualified women in their place (To get a snapshot, just look at the New York Times infographic: #MeToo Brought Down 201 Powerful Men. Nearly Half of Their Replacements Are Women).

Out of the shadows, into the light

What’s more interesting to the GRC professional, and might tell us a lot more about how times are changing, is how these cases are being dealt with today. The distinguishing feature of the “entitled male executive” way of doing things was handling harassment case internally. HR or the chief counsel’s office would “investigate” a complaint, and it would be dealt with quietly nearly always to the benefit of the man/executive and the detriment of the victim (see Google up until very recently).

That dynamic appears to be dying fast, with more and more organizations turning to outside counsel to conduct these kinds of investigations, and provide recommendations on appropriate courses of action. This was the model with several high-profile cases over the past year at companies like CBS, NPR, SoFi, Fox News and NBC. Additionally, the practice of forced arbitration – long understood as an effective, if ethically suspect, way for organizations to avoid undesirable attention and class action lawsuits – is coming under scrutiny also. Both Google and Facebook dropped forced arbitration for settling employee disputes after the walkouts.

Top-down must ally with bottom-up

GRC Top Down Bottom UpBoth of these trends reflect the benefits of greater personal accountability. Spurred by bottom-up actions like the walkouts, these top-down pressures for increased transparency and personal accountability will produce more equitable outcomes for employees. They’ll also protect the organization from future damage, whether in the court of public opinion or behind its own walls.

For GRC professionals, a big takeaway from the sexual harassment news cycles of the past few years should be that top-down culture is only so useful. It is extremely important and can provide a foundation to ethics and compliance. But if it does not permeate the chain and have bottom-up buy-in, it will be frustrated.

What we are seeing is a rise in bottom-up, which either points to great synergy… or a great culture. Or it shows a retaliation against the lack of a top-down culture of ethics. And the latter will ultimately be a huge concern for the senior execs who must be responsible for ensuring that a culture of personal accountability is being put in place.

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