‘Don’t Appear Evil’ Is Silicon Valley’s Credo

(Bloomberg) -- Over the past year, tech companies have taken some major steps to fix the workplace systems that silence victims of sexual harassment and assault. In chronological order: Last December, Microsoft ended forced arbitration in claims of sexual harassment and discrimination. In May, Uber and Lyft ended the policy in cases of sexual assault. And since the beginning of November, Google, Facebook, eBay and Square have all ended forced arbitration related to sexual harassment. Airbnb did the same and extended that change to discrimination cases as well.

Great news, right? Sounds like companies are taking action and leading the charge to make workplaces safer and more equitable.

Kind of, but not really. Microsoft's decision came days after Bloomberg reported on unsealed court docs about an intern's rape claim. Uber did the same after it was sued by 14 women who said they were assaulted or harassed as passengers and wrote an open letter asking to be freed from arbitration. Lyft, its rival, took the same steps hours later. Google revised its policy after 20,000 of its employees walked out over the company's handling of sexual misconduct, which prompted international coverage about their demands. Facebook echoed the change the next day. Square, Airbnb and eBay followed four days later, prompted in part by BuzzFeed News asking whether they would.

These are companies who for years had slogans such as, "Don't be evil" (or the updated version, "Do the right thing") and "Make the world more open and connected" (now "Bring the world closer together"). But these aren't the moves of companies doing the right thing or opening the world. These are moves made out of fear. That may not surprise some people, but it's worth repeating.

Companies act when they fear bad press or fear losing ground to their competitors. That can feel disheartening to advocates – shouldn’t they care about the principle? - but it can also be a useful tactic for pushing for more change. If a story picks up enough momentum, executives have to respond, usually publicly, and that means there’s a new motivation on the table: fear of appearing evil.

Even with the arbitration exemptions, there’s plenty more to push for. Google, for example, got a lot of coverage for ending its forced arbitration around sexual harassment cases. That’s just “window dressing” to look good, said Richard Hoyer, whose client Loretta Lee sued Google in February over sexual harassment she experienced from male co-workers who allegedly spiked her drink and hid under her desk.

Hoyer said attorneys rarely take on cases that are just sexual harassment. Often, like Lee’s, they also include claims for discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination. Any case like that would still be required to go to arbitration for those other claims, then could return to court for the harassment claims. “There's almost no sex harassment case that will ever see a day in court under Google's policy,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to go through the whole arbitration and finish it and then do another case on sex harassment. That makes no sense whatsoever. So realistically, there's no substance to their announcement.” Of the list of companies above, only Microsoft and Airbnb said they would also drop forced arbitration in discrimination cases – the rest kept it to sexual harassment only.

The window dressing hasn’t gone totally unnoticed. “Stop letting Google and other corporations control the narrative and stop praising them for doing the absolute least,” Kelly Ellis, a former Google software engineer suing the company for pay discrimination, wrote on Twitter. She’s right about the cause: whatever way the narrative changes, executives will be paying attention.

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