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Google faces its #MeToo moment

Google faces its #MeToo moment

Google is facing a public relations crisis after a report that the company gave a lucrative exit package to a high-profile executive accused of sexual harassment.

The tech giant is now facing pressure to take a tougher stand on harassment and abuse in the workplace, in what could be a test of the #MeToo movement's influence in male-dominated Silicon Valley.

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The New York Times bombshell about Google's workplace culture also comes at a difficult time for the internet search giant, which is already facing controversy on a number of fronts.

The Times report revealed that Google had given Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android mobile operating system, generous stock and exit benefits as it pushed him out the door following an accusation that he coerced an employee into performing oral sex in a hotel room in 2013.

In exchange for resigning, Google gave Rubin a $90 million severance package, which paid him $2 million a month over four years. And the company invested in the venture capital firm that Rubin started after his departure.

The report went on to paint a broad and troubling portrait of the company's workplace, with other examples of Google allegedly protecting executives facing accusations of misconduct and taking a lenient stance on high-level executives having sexual relationships with employees.

Google’s general counsel, David Drummond, reportedly had a relationship with an employee in the legal department and disclosed it to the company only after they had a child together. Google transferred the employee to a different department before she left the company. Drummond went on to be promoted.

In another case, Richard DeVaul, an executive at Google X, reportedly invited a woman he was interviewing for a job to Burning Man, where he tried to give her a topless massage. The woman said she tried to resist his advances and ultimately allowed him to give her a neck rub. She did not receive the job.

And, in what amounted to a mere footnote in the damaging story, the Times reported that Eric Schmidt, who until last year was the executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet and still holds a board seat, retained a mistress as a consultant. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page also both had relationships with employees.

The report sent Google into damage control. It responded with an internal company-wide memo assuring employees that Google takes workplace sexual harassment seriously.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Eileen Naughton, the vice president of people operations, said the company had made changes in recent years to crack down on the issue.

“We are dead serious about making sure we provide a safe and inclusive workplace,” they wrote. “We want to assure you that we review every single complaint about sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct, we investigate and we take action."

“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," they added."[I]n 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.”

But it’s unlikely any of those people had the same stature as Rubin.

Rubin has pushed back on the Times’s story, claiming it "contains numerous inaccuracies about my employment at Google and wild exaggerations about my compensation,” in a statement on Twitter.

“Specifically, I never coerced a woman to have sex in a hotel room. These false allegations are part of a smear campaign to disparage me during a divorce and custody battle," he added. "Also, I am deeply troubled that anonymous Google executives are commenting about my personnel file and misrepresenting the facts.”

Mark Spund, who heads the employment law practice at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, said it is likely Google's board was aware of the payoffs to Rubin.

“Someone had to approve that package,” Spund told The Hill. “That was a lot of money.”

Paying off the Android creator also likely ensured he would not go to work for a competitor or sue for wrongful termination, which could have led to a messy fight and invited public scrutiny of the company's workplace culture.

The Times report, though, has now put those issues squarely in the spotlight, highlighting the issues of workplace discrimination and lack of gender equality that many see as rampant in Silicon Valley.

"News like the @nytimes report on @google's handling of Andy Rubin and other top execs is crushing," Sanette Tanaka Sloan, a Google designer, wrote on Twitter.

“When Google covers up harassment and passes the trash, it contributes to an environment where people don’t feel safe reporting misconduct,” Google engineer Liz Fong-Jones told the Times. “They suspect that nothing will happen or, worse, that the men will be paid and the women will be pushed aside.”

It’s also not the first time Google has had to wrestle with these issues. The Department of Labor has accused the internet giant of having a pervasive gender wage gap, which Google denies.

Last year, Google faced an internal crisis when a programmer, James Damore, circulated a memo arguing there are fewer women in tech jobs because they are biologically predisposed toward less technical career fields.

Google fired Damore after the memo was leaked to the media. He later filed a class-action lawsuit against the company alleging discrimination against white males.

Google also isn't alone in Silicon Valley. Ride-sharing giant Uber was also rocked by widespread allegations of sexual harassment. The company eventually adopted recommendations from former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderPoll: Biden and Sanders lead 2020 Dem field, followed by Beto O'Rourke Trump's shortlist for attorney general takes shape Pipe bomb suspect to be held without bail MORE, who investigated the company's practices.

The harassment allegations were one of a series of controversies in 2017 that eventually led to the departure of numerous top executives, including founder Travis Kalanick.

But for Google, the fourth-largest U.S. company by market capitalization, the stakes are high, pulling it into a heated national debate about accountability in the workforce.

Google has already faced tough scrutiny from Washington this year over a number of issues.

Republicans have questioned whether the company and other tech platforms are biased against conservatives. Google has long faced questions in Europe about its market power, but now U.S. regulators are also taking a closer look at the company. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeath toll in Northern California wildfire rises to 48: authorities Graham backs bill to protect Mueller Denham loses GOP seat in California MORE this summer raised the possibility that Google and other large tech companies could face an "antitrust situation."

Adding to the company's woes, last month it disclosed a security bug that affected half a million Google Plus users.

Tech watchers said it was unclear how much of a toll the negative attention would have on Google.

Spund downplayed the risks to Google from the New York Times report. He said the company would have no choice but to address the matter.

“In this day and age companies have to start taking this seriously,” he said. “I'm sure that they're taking it seriously now.”

But critics and #MeToo advocates say the problems at Google and other tech companies will require a comprehensive approach. Following the New York Times report, that pressure is unlikely to ease.

Critics note that there are only two women on Alphabet’s 11-member board, which includes Schmidt, Page and Brin.

"As much as I believe in supporting the company you work for, it's equally important to voice what you vehemently disagree with," Sloan, the designer at Google, said on Twitter after the Times report.

"We can do so much better."