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Case Study: Google’s Employee Walkout and Conflict Management Systems

By Chuck Doran and Mike Rozinsky

Earlier this month, Google employees took part in an organized walkout to shine light upon the company’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct claims, specifically the lack of consequences for people in high-profile positions. While the CEO addressed some of the employees’ concerns, such as ending forced arbitration in sexual harassment and misconduct cases, the walkout organizers still felt that the company failed to understand their key concerns about the systemic issues contributing to a culture permissive of sexual misconduct, unequal pay based on gender, and opportunity inequity.

As conflict resolution practitioners, what we see is recognition and desire to by management and employees to change the system of how Google manages conflict moving forward. However, Google’s past remains ever present. Despite providing an apology – “We recognize that we have not always gotten everything right in the past and we are sincerely sorry for that. It’s clear we need to make some changes.” – and an action plan to address some of the walkout’s demands, employees still did not trust that their larger concerns were heard or considered.

When trust is low and conflict is high, it can be extremely difficult for management and employees to address their concerns and feel satisfied with solutions. Google’s commitment to improving reporting processes and transparency are important steps, but Google has a much larger opportunity to create a thoughtful, organized conflict management system rather than meeting stand-alone demands.

Designing and implementing a change like this may seem overwhelming or a huge effort, but the effort is worth the payoff. The first step, and the key to designing the best process for your specific organization, is to define your organization’s “why”. What is prompting you to refine your conflict management processes? What factors would a successful conflict management system provide or address?

In the example below, we share some proactive questions and key factors that Google could consider to meet their goal to provide “a clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct.” By answering questions like these, Google could define its “why” and build a coordinated, strategic conflict management system.


1. Understand why your organization has interest in creating this process.

  • Did something happen at the organization to trigger an interest/need to rethink your conflict management system? Google would answer yes. How would your organization respond?
  • Is the organization proactive or reactive by nature? Perspectives at Google would likely vary, the majority being reactive. How might your organization answer?

2. Identify and reflect on the options your organization has or can have to meet the need.

  • What roles and processes does your organization currently have and what might be available? Executives, Managers, Human Resources, Ethics/Compliance Officers, Legal Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity offices, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Ombuds, and/or various policies and processes?
  • How do the existing and potential roles and processes align to the culture your organization desires? It’s important to understand how every member of your organization will operate together and separately in a complementary, holistic conflict management system. To identify some of the ways different roles and processes operate, MWI provides a helpful chart in our free download on what to consider when selecting an organizational ombuds.

3. Determine if the roles and processes are best positioned and managed in-house, externally, or as a blend of both.

  • How might roles and processes conflict rather complement? Let’s take mediation as an example of a process. It would conflict to offer mediation with HR as they are a typically an office of notice for organizations. It would be complementary to have an ombuds offer mediation services as a designated neutral.
  • How do external partners align to objective, industry standards and their intention? Be mindful of how an external partner explains and actually goes about providing a service to an industry standard. It can be the difference between your organization and employees getting the value and protection you seek and causing harm to your employees and brand.

Google has an opportunity to create a collaborative conflict management system that helps meet employees’ demands and needs, as well as improving management’s ability to respond effectively to systemic issues within their organization. As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, organizations tend to realize these benefits only in hindsight after the issues boil over and become a public relations nightmare. Strong organizations recognize that conflict is inevitably in a growing company, and they take the initiative to proactively design a conflict management system. It may seem like a tall task, but the benefits of doing so are clear. And if you need assistance deciding the best conflict management system for your organization, we’re here to help.

FREE DOWNLOAD: “What to Consider When Selecting an Ombuds”

To learn more about how your organization could benefit from improving your conflict management system, contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org. You can also check out conflict management services in the Dispute Resolution for Companies section of our website.

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