Amid labor strife, Google opposes shareholder call for whistleblower-policy review


After a year of employee strife, regulatory scrutiny and public rancor, Google has asked its shareholders to vote against proposals seeking to examine some of its recurring issues.

Alphabet Inc.
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GOOG,
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Google’s parent company, is asking shareholders at its annual meeting to vote against eight shareholder proposals that seek answers or changes related to content takedowns, anticompetitive actions and diversity. After the company’s recent public spats with employees, Trillium Asset Management called for a third-party review of the effectiveness of Google’s whistleblower policies, specifically citing the exit of Google ethical artificial-intelligence team co-head Timnit Gebru in its proposal.

Most companies urge a “no” vote on shareholder proposals, and this is the second year in a row that Alphabet has opposed this particular proposal. In the year since, the tech giant has weathered waves of labor strife, including some high-profile departures; a National Labor Relations Board complaint over terminations of employees involved in organizing; and the formation of a minority union, a rarity for white-collar tech companies.

Jonas Kron, chief advocacy officer at Trillium, told MarketWatch that “the problem is things keep happening. I have a hard time with the company saying ‘don’t worry about these things’ that seem to be happening every month.”

Trillium’s proposal referred to other firings and departures over the years, but wasn’t completely up-to-date. Earlier this month, a couple of thousand Google workers wrote a letter asking the company to “stop protecting harassers,” less than three years after a huge employee walkout over the same issue.

See: Google employees demand better protection from internal harassment

Kron also pointed to an NBC News report from last month that Google tends to advise its employees to go on leave and seek mental health care when they complain about racism or sexism.

A Google spokeswoman said the company had no comment Monday. In its proxy released last week, Google said it already prohibits retaliation against employees who raise policy-violation and other types of concerns, including about the company’s commitment to human rights. The company also said it has stepped up its investigations processes since September and is analyzing its investigations data “to ensure that lessons learned are captured and relied upon to further improve our policies, training and investigation outcomes.”

The departure of Gebru, who has said her access to work email and systems was cut off after she asked management to discuss a decision to retract an AI research paper she and her team had worked on, has been followed by more public fallout. Her co-lead, Margaret Mitchell, who spoke up in support of Gebru, has since been fired. Both women have also said they had raised concerns about race and gender bias in the workplace. In addition, Google Research manager Samy Bengio, who had said he was not informed of Gebru’s firing, resigned earlier this month.

“Shareholders will look at this and say we were here a year ago and problems are getting worse,” Kron said, noting that last year’s resolution got 4.9% of shareholder votes but adding the caveat that the company’s founders have majority voting control.

Google is opposing all shareholder resolutions. Here are the rest:

  • A proposal asking the company to give each share an equal vote. Class B stock has 10 times the voting rights as Class A shares, giving co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin 51% of voting power even though they own less than 12% of the stock.

  • A resolution urging the company to put a human- or civil-rights expert on the board. Shareholders cite the company’s “extraordinary impact on human and civil rights” considering its dominance of the search market, the reach of YouTube and the trove of data it has on internet users.

  • A proposal asking for a report on sustainability metrics related to diversity and inclusion. “According to Google’s 2020 diversity report, underrepresented people of color account for only 7.9% of Google’s tech workforce and only 6.8 percent of leadership,” the resolution says.

  • A resolution asking for more transparency and detail on takedown requests in different jurisdictions, with shareholders asking to compare Google’s actions with its stated commitment to not pursuing technologies that cause harm.

  • A proposal asking for a report on the company’s charitable contributions, especially in light of many recent political and social events.

  • A resolution asking the board to report on how it oversees risks related to anticompetitive practices. This comes as the company faces antitrust scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators.

  • A proposal asking for the company to become a public benefit corporation, considering its massive reach and influence around the world.

Alphabet’s annual shareholder meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Pacific on June 2.



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