We don’t normally feature letters sent in to advice columnists, but one question which popped up at the New York Post this week caught my attention. It came from someone who was quite impressed with the recent walkout by female employees at Google. They brought up the idea of doing something similar at their own place of employment and were stunned to find that management might reward them with a pink slip if they did so.
I was inspired by the recent Google employee walkout, enough so to try to organize a walkout at my employer because of the working conditions. When my boss got wind of it, he said he would fire me if I did it. Is that legal? Could Google have fired the 10,000 employees who walked out around the globe?
Well, labor laws vary dramatically by country, and that would have been problematic in many European countries, but let’s stick to the US. Unless there was some sort of employment agreement stating otherwise, then yes, Google could have fired every employee who participated in or organized the walkout.
The answer provided by the Post is a good one and goes into more detail beyond that. As I noted at the time of that walkout, not only were none of the women fired but the head of the company felt compelled to come out and issue a statement in support of the walkout. That wasn’t because of any labor laws, however. They could have fired every one of the absent workers if they wished. But it would have been a public relations disaster for Google because they’d been caught with their pants down (both literally and figuratively) when they gave a huge golden parachute to an executive who’d been engaged in personnel interactions featuring “coerced oral sex” from a female employee.
But even with all of those factors taken into consideration, it was still interesting to see how the vast majority of the women participating in the walkout refused to talk to members of the press, instead referring them to the organizers. The protest had a very definite and controlled message, as well as a specific length of time it was going to last. The whole thing wound up looking heavily stage-managed if you ask me.
But the fact is, you can organize a walkout at your place of work if enough of your colleagues agree with your complaints. At the same time, you can all be fired for it in most cases if the company wants to play hardball. If you’re going to fight for your convictions you need to be prepared to pay a price. But if what you are protesting are unsafe working conditions or systemic sexual harassment or other abuse, the employer may just decide to play ball with you rather than facing media scrutiny. Of course, Google will always draw more media attention than some small accounting firm out in the suburbs, so take that into account as well.