Why we need transparency in the face of sexual harassment

Why we need transparency in the face of sexual harassment

Anodyne doesn’t work.

It’s taking overly long for the corporate world to catch the message that soothing PR, or what is meant to be soothing PR, doesn’t cut it any more.

We want the unadorned facts.

We want the facts on how corporations intend to erase the discrimination of women. We want the facts on how corporations deal with sexual harassment. We want the facts on internal measures adopted in order to be — this is a crazy idea — fair in the workplace. We want assurances, and surely large institutional investors would agree that companies aren’t throwing gazillions of dollars unnecessarily at fleeing misbehaving executives in an attempt to make the problem quietly disappear.

We want transparency.

Here we are just days away from the deadline handed to Nike Inc. to respond to allegations of unfair pay and promotion practices embedded in a toxic corporate culture that, in the account of one plaintiff, dismissed complaints about sexual harassment with that standard old messaging that she was being too “sensitive.” A request to at least be moved to a position where she didn’t have to deal with the harassing male co-worker was met, according to the allegations, with a “No” response.

That’s just a small example of the tumult at the corporation, confirmed in the bland comments by CEO Mark Parker. Reports of wrong behaviour “do not reflect our core values of inclusivity, respect and empowerment,” Parker offered. Suddenly, the sportswear giant was going to undertake a review of its human resources practices. The resignation of the company’s brand president was announced — other executives followed — and Parker pledged to take a “sharper focus on our culture.”

Why the company had failed to proactively embrace best practices decades earlier Parker did not say.

And just whose interests were ultimately protected? The outgoing executives? Or the women who lost years of job and pay advancement?

Right, that’s not much of a quiz.

The eye-popping tale of former Google executive Andy Rubin is illustrative.

Last November, The Information revealed that Rubin exited the company in 2014 “shortly after an internal investigation determined that he had carried on an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.” This week, the New York Times dug deeply into Google’s culture and Rubin’s exit. The Times reported that according to two sources, Rubin’s farewell cost the company $90 million (U.S.).

“The package was structured so that he received $2.5 million a month for the first two years and $1.25 million a month for the following two years,” the Times reports, adding crucially that Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page had “asked for” Rubin’s resignation.

“What Google did not make public,” the Times noted, “was that an employee had accused Mr. Rubin of sexual misconduct.”

Here’s a key statement in the Times report: “Google could have fired Mr. Rubin and paid him little to nothing on the way out.”

A spokesperson for Rubin insisted in the story that Rubin left of his own accord.

Rubin took to Twitter, complaining that there were “numerous inaccuracies” and “wild exaggerations” in the Times account, though he offered only one example: “Specifically, I never coerced a woman to have sex in a hotel room.”

So what about that $90 million?

The swift response from Google CEO Sundar Pichai was meant to smooth over that question. In a note to employees, Pichai said this: “In recent years, we’ve made a number of changes, including taking an increasingly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority: in the last two years, 48 people have been terminated for sexual harassment, including 13 who were senior managers and above. None of these individuals received an exit package.”

The statement begs an exclamation: 48!

And a thought: was it the company’s prior policy to take a soft line on inappropriate conduct?

And again: so what about that $90 million?

The answer may lie in a pattern of corporate behaviour. In February, 2017, tech journalist Kara Swisher broke the story of Amit Singhal’s departure as senior vice-president engineering at Uber. The ride-hailing company, renowned for its own deeply dysfunctional culture, had been unaware, until informed by Swisher, that Singhal had left his previous job at Google after an internal investigation into an allegation of sexual harassment had found that allegation to be “credible.” In an email to Swisher, the executive denied the accusations. Uber swiftly requested Singhal’s resignation.

As the Times pointed out last week, Google was silent about the accusations against Singhal and negotiated an exit package that paid “millions.”

According to the paper, Singhal was one of two senior executives handsomely rewarded, “even though it had no obligation to do so.”

Pichai attempted to sidestep that charge by noting the number of employees terminated without compensation. It’s a classic shell game: don’t look over there. Look over here!

Until Google provides fuller disclosure, critics will rightly hold firm to the belief that the company has wrongly rewarded execrable behaviour. This is a public relations crisis for the company. Soft promises to create a workplace “where you can feel safe to do your best work” are a dime a dozen.

Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: jenwells@thestar.ca

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