Big Tech faces more employee activism over misconduct handling

Big Tech faces more employee activism over misconduct handling
08/01/2021 James Middleton

In a clear indication of growing employee empowerment and activism in the tech sector, more than 200 workers at Google parent Alphabet have announced the formation of a union with the intention of pressuring the company on ethics and working conditions.

The Alphabet Workers Union, which was announced in the first week of January 2021 but had been meeting secretly for a year, is not a union in the traditional sense and does not intend to negotiate contracts. It currently only represents a small number of the company’s 140,000 strong workforce but organizers expect membership to grow rapidly.  

The main aim will be to pressure the company to prioritize ethics in product development, and take reports of workplace misconduct, including diversity, pay discrimination, and sexual harassment, more seriously.

Although unionization is unusual in Silicon Valley Big Tech, it’s not the first time Alphabet employees have taken an activist stance. In 2018, more than 20,000 employees staged a walkout to protest the handling of sexual harassment reports at the firm. Others have spoken out on the ethics of developing artificial intelligence products for the Defense Department.

Nor is Alphabet alone. While tech workers have largely kept quiet in the past on societal and political issues, 2020 saw employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest, and others become more vocal about their employer’s integrity and increasingly organized regarding activism. The organizers suggested that the formation of a publicly recognized body, such as the union, is a step towards encouraging more employees to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation.

In an article in the FT, Auni Ahsan, a Google software engineer and member of the union’s executive council, said: “This is a company that has a history of workers speaking up when the company isn’t living up to its values, but what we’ve found over the last couple of years is that the normal cycle of petitions and press coverage is no longer enough.

“The company was no longer listening, so we thought it was really important to come together and organize this union so we could have sustained structure and build a movement for building power in our workplace.”

The trend in employee empowerment is well documented. The Future of Work survey, released by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills at the end of 2019, revealed that 80% of enterprises globally expect to see a rise in activism among both employees and casual workers in the future. The expectation is higher among large companies (those with annual revenue of $1bn or more), where 86% say they are more likely to see a rise in activism than their smaller counterparts.

Furthermore, social media will continue to play a key role as a tool for both coordinating and amplifying workforce activism. Some 95% of respondents to the law firm’s survey said they expect to see an increase in their workforce making its voice heard through social media channels in the future.

The important thing for organizations to note is that by failing to provide an effective forum or mechanism internally where issues concerning employees can be escalated and discussed, workers will take the discussion elsewhere. This is typically outside the organization’s walls and their field of vision. 

It’s essential to make employees feel safe when speaking up about their concerns. This is the first step to getting a heads up on issues before they become bigger, external problems. 

Secondly, setting the expectation that an employer wants to hear from its workers is one thing,  enabling the process is another. To be successful, the mechanism must not only enable employees to speak up but employers to listen and act. A critical part of the resolution process when it comes to all forms of misconduct or unethical concern is demonstrating that the complaint has been heard and action taken. 

We dive into this in much greater detail, here.