A news article about sexual harassment buyout four years ago sent Google employees to the streets in New York City and around the globe. They protested $90 million paid to Andy Rubin, the “Father of Android” and other high-level golden parachutes paid after those executives were credibly accused of sexual harassment by Google employees. Find out the options available to workers harassed by executives in their company, especially when those companies praise the abuser and silence the abuse.
In this blog post, I will review a New York Times report of walkout protests by Google employees prompted by sexual harassment buyouts offered to male executives accused of harassment. I will review federal and state law related to how employers should respond to allegations of sexual harassment, and will discuss what options employees have when their harassers are offered golden parachutes.
On October 25, 2018, the New York Times published an article exposing a scandal at Google four years in the making. In October 2014, Andy Rubin, creator of Android mobile software, resigned from the company after Google investigated allegations of sexual misconduct, finding them credible. A female employee reported Rubin coerced her into performing oral sex in a hotel in 2013 as part of an extramarital affair. After the investigation revealed her allegations were credible, Google asked Rubin for his resignation.
But at the time, Rubin’s departure from Google was more of a celebration than a punishment. Larry Page, Google’s CEO at the time, wished Rubin well, applauding him for “creating something truly remarkable -- with a billion-plus happy users.” The company also paid him a $90 million exit package over four years, ending in November 2018.
Rubin wasn’t the only one Google treated to a golden parachute. The company took similar action in two other cases where executives were accused of sexual harassment. While sexual harassment buyouts weren’t necessarily common at the company, in two cases, the executives accused received generous exit packages. In another the executive stayed with the company in spite of the accusations. In all of these cases, Google stayed silent about the sexual harassment allegations.
When the news of these severance packages went public, Google employees around organized walkouts in protest. In New York, 3,000 workers gathered in a local city park with signs and organizers stood on chairs with megaphones to address the crowd. They chanted “Time’s Up”, after a similar movement in Hollywood last year. Similar protests erupted across the globe -- including Singapore, Hyderabad, India, Berlin, and London -- as well as in Chicago and Seattle. The message at all these protests was the same: Google needed to do more to recognize diversity among its workforce. That included treating the victims of sexual harassment fairly, and not offering bailouts to their harassers.
The protests happened just as New York State was rolling out new regulations for public and private employers across the state. The new law mandates every company with employees in New York to adopt an anti-discrimination policy including reporting procedures and clear descriptions of potential consequences for unlawful behavior. By October 2019, employers must also provide annual sexual harassment prevention training to all their employees.
These protections are on top of federal sexual harassment protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Both laws make it illegal for an employer to base hiring decisions on a person’s sex or gender. Employers are required to investigate and take reasonable steps to respond to allegations of sexual harassments by coworkers, contractors, supervisors, and even executives.
Those reasonable responses to sexual harassment allegations can sometimes include firing the person accused of harassment. But when a forced resignation comes with a sexual harassment buyout and a glowing recommendation, it may not seem like much of a punishment at all. The law doesn’t prohibit employers from offering severance packages to employees accused of misconduct. However, companies are also allowed to fire employers on the spot, without notice or severance. What is reasonable in a particular situation is a question for the New York Division of Human Rights, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys know that a sexual harassment buyout never feels like a fair response to allegations of misconduct. We will meet with you and review your options when your employer chooses an executive’s comfort over your complaint. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.