Will Alphabet/Google Be Transparent in Its Sexual Harassment Investigation?

Following the introduction and eventual rejection of a shareholder resolution sponsored by National Legal and Policy Center at the annual meeting of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, board members are now investigating sexual harassment claims against some of its executives.

The resolution, announced a year ago by NLPC president Peter Flaherty, followed the height of the #MeToo movement in which women who had been sexually harassed – or even assaulted – came forward to expose what happened to them in the workplace. The proposal sought accountability and transparency in how Alphabet/Google has handled various claims of such misconduct, and also called for more ideological balance on the heavily left-leaning board of directors. The annual meeting was held in June.

The current investigation by a select committee of Alphabet’s board, along with the hiring of a law firm to aid the probe, was revealed this month in a report by CNBC. While co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page – who together own a majority of shares (51.3 percent as of July) and thus control Alphabet – could ignore NLPC’s shareholder proposal, apparently the board could not look the other way following the filing of a lawsuit by some shareholders over the sexual misconduct controversy.

“As has already been confirmed in public court filings,” an Alphabet spokesperson told CNBC, “in early 2019, Alphabet’s Board of Directors formed a special litigation committee to consider claims made by shareholders in various lawsuits relating to past workplace conduct.”

The majority of complaints have to do with top executives being forced out of the company with enormous, multi-million-dollar payouts, following credible accusations of sexual misconduct. Tech Web site The Information reported in November 2017 that romantic relationships with subordinates by past executives had been allowed, despite Google’s policy that prohibited such behavior. Citing interviews with almost 40 current and former staff, an examination showed the corporation’s double standard and lack of accountability “have for years been a flashpoint of frustration and anger among Google’s employees.”

Page and Brin both dated Google colleagues for a time – Page with Marissa Mayer, who later became CEO of Yahoo!, and Brin with the younger Amanda Rosenberg. Eric Schmidt, when he was CEO of Google, dated former company publicist Marcy Simon.

Apparently those relationships were somewhat publicly known, but another wasn’t for quite a while: Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, who had an extramarital affair (and a baby) with a paralegal who has since left the company, Jennifer Blakely.

But the biggest revelation – one which spurred a walkout by outraged Google employees a year ago – was the celebratory send-off and $90-million package Google gave Android operating system creator Andy Rubin in 2014, which cloaked the fact that he was told to resign over coercive sexual misconduct and an affair with a subordinate. Also, head of search Amit Singhal was offered $45 million when he left, although the amount was reduced to $15 million because he was hired by a competitor.

According to the shareholder lawsuit complaint, Page, the CEO of Alphabet, also awarded $150 million in stock to Rubin without receiving board approval. The complaint also said Page, Brin and Schmidt – with their powerful roles in controlof the majority of company stock – later gained directors’ “rubber stamp” approval for the 2014 payout to Rubin.

Other troubling incidents at Google, cited by The Information and its sources, included:

  • “Several employees described boozy, off-site events that could feel more like a college party than an after-work gathering. One woman said that at one of these off site events, a male engineer who works for Google groped her. And in a separate incident, she said her manager once told her she might as well sleep with him because everybody assumed they already had.”
  • Tracey Kaplan, a sales manager who left the company this year, claimed her (married) superior “suddenly lunged forward and pressed his lips to hers.” “Her colleagues at Google told her that it wouldn’t be a good idea if she valued her career at the company,” The Information reported.
  • A former Google director, Kim Scott, said in a backhanded “compliment” that “Bad sh** happened to me at Google, but less bad sh** happened to me than anywhere else.”

Considering the accumulation of embarrassing incidents it’s not surprising Page and Brin would reject NLPC’s shareholder resolution – but the lawsuit is harder to ignore. The behavior of Drummond, who was the subject of an August post on Medium by scorned lover Blakely and outlined his alleged various philandering with staffers, seems to be driving the new investigation.

NLPC president Flaherty gave no quarter when presenting the proposal at the June annual meeting.

“I can’t figure out why the company opposes this proposal on sexual harassment after pledging to do all it can about sexual harassment…,” he said. “Maybe it’s because there is not an ounce of sincerity in any of the reasons Alphabet cites. The real reason is that this company, and most of the rest of corporate America, is not governed by what is in the interests of shareholders or society as a whole.”

The investigation is a little late considering the amount of damage to the reputation of the company, and the secrecy surrounding the many examples of alleged misconduct. When its over, will Alphabet be as transparent about its findings as NLPC has called for?