The following case studies provide examples of tech laborers attempting to hold their employers accountable for the missions, ethics, and values the company promised and projected in the job selection process.
Google Walkout for Real Change
In November of 2017, it was publicly revealed that Andy Rubin, creator of the Android and former Google executive, left the company in 2014 after an inappropriate relationship with a coworker. However, the specifics of the incident were not public at the time (Czarnecki, 2).
A year later in October 2018 , The New York Times published an investigation which revealed that Google, upon learning Rubin sexually assaulted a female employee, paid Rubin $90 million in exchange for his resignation (Wakabayashi, 4). After this revelation, about 20 outraged Google employees coordinated a company-wide walkout to protest Google’s actions with respect to Andy Rubin and other cases of sexual harassment within the company.
On November 1, 2018, over 20,000 employees walked out of over 50 Google offices around the world in protest (Cornish, 1-3). On November 8, 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai published a company response to the walkout, announcing a comprehensive plan for progress which includes updated mandatory sexual harassment training, more transparent sexual assault investigations, optional arbitration, and other updates (Pichai, 2018).
Everything appeared great and the walkout was deemed successful, until the spring of 2019, when it was revealed that the organizers of the walkout were being punished by supervisors (Tiku, 2-3). Meredith Whittaker, one of the organizers, was informed that her role would “change dramatically” and suggested she switch teams (Tiku, 2). In response to this retaliation, Google employees planned a company-wide sit-in on May 1, 2019 – exactly 6 months after the original walkout (Youn, 1-4).
This case study provides two separate examples of employees joining forces to take a stance against Google and hold the tech giant accountable for its questionable actions.
Uber’s Toxic Workplace Culture
In February of 2012, Susan Fowler published a blog post she did not expect to go viral, entitled “Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber.” In the memo, Fowler elaborates on her experience with gender harassment at Uber, which began on her very first day when her new manager sent her explicit sexual messages over the company chat. She goes on to explain that this was the first of many cases of discrimination and harassment she faced, and despite reporting every incident to the Human Resources department, they did not help her. Rather, they blamed her for being the common denominator in all of her reports. She mentions that when she started at Uber in 2015, the Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) organization she joined within the company was 25% women. When she left, it was 3%, which she blames on the prevalent sexism and organizational chaos at the company (Fowler, “Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber” 1-23).
Upon leaving Uber and her post going viral, Fowler became a contributor for The New York Times. She has used the platform to voice her opinions on forced arbitration and unnecessarily strict confidentiality agreements. She writes, “Forcing legal disputes about discrimination, harassment, and retaliation to go through secret arbitration proceedings hides the behavior and allows it to become culturally entrenched” (Fowler, “I Wrote the Uber Memo” 7). Her original blog post prompted the company to hire two law firms to launch investigations into her and other female employees’ allegations (Bhuiyan, 6). Ultimately, the investigations and public discontent resulted in investors forcing Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick to step down from his position a few months later and the termination of 20 other employees who had been accused of harassment or some level of misconduct (Isaac, 2-9).
Since these events, Uber has fallen under quite a bit of public scrutiny. In August 2018, NPR reported that 56 people who “filed specific claims of ‘incidents of discrimination, harassment, and/or hostile work environment and connecting their experiences to their race, national origin or gender” are “set to receive an average payout of nearly $34,000” (Kennedy, 4).
There have also been numerous very public cases of Uber driver assaulting passengers in the last few years, and customers suing Uber for negligence as a result (Hawkins, 1-4). Most recently, on May 8, 2019 thousands of Uber drivers boycotted driving for the entire day, and protested unfair wages and working conditions. Although seemingly unrelated to the original Susan Fowler essay, these instances may reflect the same organizational chaos and employee neglect that Fowler initially flagged to the public.
Riot Games’ Gamer Culture and Lawsuits
Riot Games, notorious as the developer of the popular video game “League of Legends”, has recently been publicly criticized for its male-dominated, sexist gamer-culture. In the summer of 2018, Kotaku launched an investigation into the “bro-culture” and rampant sexism at the company. The investigation revealed many cases of blatant sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and other instances of toxic behavior, including an email chain that circulated around the company ranking female employees based on their appearances (D’Anastasio, “Inside the Culture of Sexism at Riot Games” 1-10).
Many of the female employees blame these sexist trends on the video-gamer culture, which is a very white male-dominated space. The company is 80% men and “regularly turned down female applicants for not fitting the company’s image of ‘core gamers’ ” (D’Anastasio, “Current and Former Employees Sue Riot Games For Gender Discrimination” 4).
Two female employees, one current and one former, filed lawsuits against the company for discrimination and harassment (Webb, 1). The plaintiffs outlined numerous instances of prejudice and harassment, such as pay discrepancy, inappropriate language in the workplace, and improper promotion (D’Anastasio, “Current and Former Employees Sue Riot Games For Gender Discrimination” 3). However, the company’s policies blocked these lawsuits and forced the cases into arbitration.
On May 6, 2019, over 200 Riot employees walked out of the office to protest this clause (Eidelson, 7). Sources cite the Google Walkout for Real Change serving as an inspiration for this employee walkout (Eidelson, 14). As of May 18, 2019, Riot Games has announced they are not changing their forced arbitration policy (D’Anastasio, “As Deadline Passes, Riot Games Doesn’t Budge on Key Walkout Issue” 1).
This case study provides an interesting chain of events of employee action to counteract a negative workplace culture. When the legal route was not effective, employees, inspired by recent movements by fellow tech laborers, banded together to publicly protest and stand ground against the endemic sexism and discrimination at their company. Although neither method stimulated a productive reaction by company leadership, employees have expressed a strong desire to hold Riot Games accountable and recognize the need for systemic change.