Employee Activism at Google and Lessons for Other Firms from New Forms of Unionism

The How, What, and Why of Employee Activism at Google

In recent months, the preeminent Tech Firm and Silicon Valley Behemoth has been in the news for how its employees have become activists and are forcing its management to jettison some projects as well as lead walkout protests against what they perceive as a former senior executive being let off lightly for an alleged case of sexual discrimination.

It all started at the beginning of this year when Google, which prides itself on being an Open company where employees are encouraged to air their views and opinions on just about anything and everything on formal and informal channels of communication, had to withdraw from a proposed project with the Pentagon in face of persistent opposition from its employees.

At that time, many experts were of the view that this was a harbinger and a test case of how Employee Activism at the Workplace had to be managed as well as a pointer to how other firms should deal with an increasingly assertive workforce.

Indeed, once Google withdrew from the project, it was hailed by many Left Leaning experts as the emergence of a New Form of Unionism in times when traditional unions and their power has been weakened as well as the beginning of some form of unionism in the much vaunted Big Tech firms.

The Decline of Unions and How Big Firms Channelize Employee Dissent

For decades, as the Tech and Financial services revolution panned out across the globe, there were many who warned about the lack of a forum or an outlet for employees in these firms since they being White Collar professionals were not expected to be part of a formal employees union.

This was the reason why many Tech firms such as Microsoft, Infosys, Facebook, and Google had a robust internal Bulletin Board and Employee Voice media to allow employees debate the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of their workplace as well as their employer’s policies towards them and towards the other stakeholders.

Indeed, in our personal experience at Infosys, we found that the internal Bulletin Board was like a Safety Valve that let employees vent out their frustrations on the various aspects of their time in the firm.

Of course, the BB or the Bulletin Board was monitored on a regular basis and needless to say, the HR or Human Resources Managers used to intervene whenever the discussions went beyond the mandate of Free Speech and Openness principles.

This was also the case with many other firms where employees and their activist impulses were handled and managed with utmost care.

Knowledge Workers, Activism, Free Speech, and the Limits to the Same

Having said that, it is also the case that many employees in the Knowledge Work firms often are more voluble and more assertive than their peers and counterparts at other firms since they are often the Créme De La Créme of professionals having been exposed to the world as well as educated in institutions where dissent is an integral aspect of their time there.

In other words, as Google found out, its employees were an especially activist bunch who having tasted victory continued to press the firm to introduce changes in internal methods of employee welfare as well as in external behavior by insisting on not operating in China and other authoritarian countries where it would have to abandon its commitment to Free Speech and Openness.

Moreover, in recent weeks, Google employees have also staged a Walkout to protest sexual harassment and discrimination as well as have been engaged in a Heated Debate over whether Google’s culture discriminates against Men.

These instances are now setting off Alarm Bells both among the senior leadership of Google and in other firms where worried executives now look over their Shoulders to check if their employees would follow suit.

The Return of Organized Protests at the Workplaces in the Era of Trump

Thus, Google’s experiences with Employee Activism can be the harbinger of a New Form of Unionism wherein well paid and well looked after White Collar Knowledge Workers begin to assert themselves.

This can lead to strikes and lockouts in a manner reminiscent of the 1970s and the 1980s when Unions in Manufacturing firms held their employers to ransom in a similar manner. As mentioned earlier.

The Employee Activism at Google is being keenly watched and commented upon by experts and business leaders alike with nervous HR Managers meeting with other leadership figures on ways and means to tackle such activism lest it happens in their firms.

Moreover, other firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are also looking out for potential signs of employee dissatisfaction especially since most workplaces after the election of President Trump are highly polarized.

While there are some who believe that Google has been treating its employees with Kid Gloves and letting them run amok, there are others who applaud the employees and the firms in taking a firm stand for ethical and conscientious values.


Lastly, managing employee dissent and employee anger was the forte of the HR managers in the previous generation.

It is ironic that present day HR professionals are revisiting the methods and tactics of the previous generations to learn from their experiences and in a way, the Wheel Has Come Full Circle.

Moreover, in Indian tech firms, there are many who believe that they must form unions as well.

Thus, Google might be the Canary in the Coal Mine as far as neo unionism is concerned.

To conclude, Employee Activism has become a Buzzword in recent months and while it can go anywhere from here or fizzle out, the case of Google has important lessons for other firms and the HR Managers in them.

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Economics of Human Resources