In 2013, a Google employee claimed to be sexually harassed in a hotel room by Andy Rubin, the chief architect of Android. Google launched an investigation. They found the employee’s complaints to be credible. They also found that Rubin had paid multiple women hundreds of thousands of dollars to enter into “ownership agreements” with him. Rubin wrote, in one email: “Being owned is kinda like you are my property, and I can loan you to other people.”
In asking for Rubin’s resignation, Google’s leadership negotiated an exit package for him that was worth $90 million. In return for that $90 million, Mr. Rubin was prohibited from working for major competitors and from disparaging Google publically. Google didn’t reprimand Mr. Rubin’s behavior; instead, they released a public statement praising Rubin for his achievements at the company. They also went on to invest in the venture firm he established a few months later. Who, exactly, was being punished here?
The Rubin case is far from an anomaly. In 2018, over 20,000 Google employees walked out of their offices to protest the way the company handles sexual harassment claims. They had plenty of examples to choose from. Prepare to be further outraged.
When Richard DeVaul, a director of Google X, interviewed Star Simpson, a hardware engineer, for a job in research and development, he invited her to Burning Man. She went, dressed in business casual, expecting to speak more about the role she was applying for. Instead, he asked her to take her shirt off and let him massage her back. Simpson protested. A few weeks later, Google informed Simpson that she did not get the job, with no further explanation. Only when the claims came to the press did DeVaul get ousted, and others soon spoke up about suffering sexual harassment under DeVaul.
In 2015, a Google employee complained that Amit Singhal, a senior vice president in charge of search, groped her at an off-site event. Google found the claim credible. They accepted Singhal’s resignation—and negotiated an exit package that paid him millions. Google issued no public statement, and Singhal wrote a blog saying the reason for his departure was to spend more time on family and philanthropy. Less than a year later, he was hired as Uber’s head of engineering.
There are other examples at Amazon, Uber, and plenty of other places that aren’t high profile enough to make the news. No company gets it perfect in the fight against sexual harassment. Not yet, at least. But there are some steps that, if taken together, can make strides towards a safer, more equitable, and ultimately more profitable corporate environment.
Currently, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and corporate policies are set, by default, to sweep instances of sexual harassment under the rug. Transparency works to undo this.
Companies should put non-retaliation policies in writing, and fully inform their workers and executives about the definitions, consequences, and processes around sexual harassment in the workplace. Executives who are aware of harassment, and enable it, need to be called out. Being transparent about the subject upholds critical directives in combatting sexual harassment, including breaking the silence and protecting the accuser.
In many cases, an HR department has the power to investigate a sexual harassment claim and offer recommendations. Final action, however, rests with upper management, who is focused on the company’s bottom line. But replacing a high-level executive accused of misconduct is more costly than replacing a low-level accuser, creating a major conflict of interest. Empowering HR to take disciplinary actions, even against some leadership positions, would move towards establishing equal standards in the workplace, and removing some of the inherent power imbalances in sexual harassment cases.
In many settings, sexual harassment training is a way of ticking boxes. In others, it’s an actual joke. Better training is necessary. Black and white scenarios which leave no room for misunderstandings, mixups, and the complexities of interpersonal relationships paint everything with a victim-versus-perpetrator brush. Not only is that disingenuous, it can lead to extreme resentment.
Furthermore, giving people a list of inappropriate behaviors, without any instructions on what to do when they’re witnessed, leads to situation where people witness a case of sexual harassment, and do nothing. A more comprehensive training system would not only involve a deep exploration of nuance, but also a significant dedication to bystander training, which gets people involved before and after an instance of harassment occurs, giving staff techniques to de-escalate, redirect, and manage conflicts that they witness.
Maybe it sounds Draconian, but sending a top-level executive to the metaphorical guillotine for a confirmed case of sexual harassment could set a better precedent than handing him a $90 million bonus check.
In big businesses, non-compete clauses and managed exits come with the territory, but taking an action that says your company backs all its employees instead of just its richest is another way to recruit top talent. Acting quickly, confidently, and honestly can be a positive PR move, as well as the decent human thing to do.
Companies need more women in positions of power, and not just in HR, where women make up 70 percent of the workforce. Putting women on boards, in the C-suite, or in other positions of influence will empower both HR and the company as a whole, along with providing the knock-on bonus of opening up more empathetic channels for victims of sexual harassment. It can also change a company’s culture and treatment of women more broadly, and begin tipping the scales towards gender equality.
Changing corporate culture doesn’t come through 60-minute training sessions or patting-oneself-on-the-back corporate memos. Like most progressive social issues, it’s an ongoing journey to inclusivity and equality.
Companies looking to be on the right side of the issue should open up the discussion of sexual harassment to include leadership, middle-management, and general staff. Anonymous surveys of all employees can take the temperature of a company when it comes to issues of sexual harassment and corporate culture. This is an issue that isn’t solved in silence, but through a long and slow-burning conversation.
No one’s a winner in the corporate world when it comes to fighting sexual harassment. According to a survey by the American Bar Association, close to half of all female respondents believe that sexual harassment is tolerated in their organization, and have no confidence that senior leadership is addressing the issue. Even more worryingly, it found 68 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment, and only 30 percent have reported it. If that doesn’t get the business world’s attention, then this should: it’s costing companies an enormous amount of money.
Failing to deal with sexual harassment is bad for business. Studies show a single instance of sexual harassment claim can dramatically reduce the public’s view of the entire organization’s gender equity. People see sexual harassment as a cultural problem within a corporation, rather than the work of a single bad actor. Another study found that when a company acts swiftly, considerately, and transparently (as opposed to slowly and dismissively), public backlash is reduced to nearly the same point as if no sexual harassment claim had been made at all.
It’s not just legal fees or bad PR that costs a company money when it comes to sexual harassment. Absences, employee turnover, and lost productivity all factor in. A 1988 study found the cost of sexual harassment to the US Army to be around $250 million per year, while a 1994 study found that sexual harassment in the federal workforce was costing the government over $327 million over the course of two years.
It’s hard to estimate the financial cost of sexual harassment to a company the size of Google—let alone the entire American economy—especially given the prevailing trend towards obfuscation rather than transparency. But whatever the figure is, it’s high. A 2007 analysis estimated that, in the private sector, a single case of sexual harassment costs a company around $22,500 in lost productivity, increased absences, and employee turnover. If that seems miniscule compared to a million-dollar exit deal, remember to account for scale (both in number female employees, and in number of instances of sexual harassment).
Motivated companies can start recapturing those losses immediately by taking a strong stand against sexual harassment. They’ll likely boost their recruitment, and their profits, from the reputational benefit that they accrue in the process. The race to become the market leader in combatting sexual harassment is wide open.