Employees of Google parent Alphabet went to the unusual length of grilling their bosses about several hot-button issues during the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday.
The employees—upset about how the company deals with sexual harassment, its employment practices, and its development of a censored search engine for China—risked their jobs to tell Alphabet leadership that they wanted change and transparency. The meeting, hosted in Sunnyvale, Calif., further demonstrated a recent cultural shift in Silicon Valley in which employees feel more empowered to speak out against their employers.
“We see these problems because we live them,” a Google employee, who identified herself as Marie, told the corporate leadership lined up on stage. “We are already organizing with or without you.”
But despite the concerns, all 14 items proposed by shareholders—most of which aimed to increase Alphabet’s accountability, equality, and transparency—were rejected. The results came as no surprise, given that Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin control the majority of voting power.
And the fact that Page, who is Alphabet’s CEO, did not attend the meeting upset several people present. In fact, he’s rarely seen in public these days and is referred to as a Silicon Valley’s recluse CEO.
“Year after year, there’s no CEO here,” said a shareholder who did not identify himself at the meeting. “That we can’t address him once a year—I think that’s disgraceful.”
Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s chief financial officer Ruth Porat, and Google’s vice president Kent Walker did attend the meeting. In addition to fielding the usual questions about Alphabet’s business and innovations like self-driving cars, they got an earful from Google employees who wanted their voices to be heard.
Max Kapczynski, an employee at Alphabet’s life sciences arm Verily, spoke to support a proposal that would require Google to end allegedly unfair employment practices, like forced arbitration for Alphabet employees who don’t work in the Google division. He wants Alphabet to maintain the same standards across all of its various business units.
“Coming here today wasn’t easy,” said Kapczynski. “As an at-will employee I can be let go at any time for any reason or for no reason at all.
“I’m here today to add my voice to the growing number of workers shareholders and community members demanding that Google do better.”
Some Google workers have previously accused the company of retaliating against vocal employees. For example, Google employees Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton recently claimed that Google tried to demote them after they organized a walkout to protest how the company handled sexual harassment.
Regardless of the potential ramifications of speaking out, Marie, one of the employees at the shareholder meeting, said workers would continue to do so until the company makes critical changes.
“If I’m not longer employed here in a year, five others will be here to fill this spot,” she told the corporate leaders. “What more will it take for you to decide to accept our experience and our offering to help and start fixing these problems with us?”
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