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What CEOs Can Learn From The Google Walkouts

For CEOs, simply aspiring to be ethical isn’t enough; devoting time to actualizing their ideals is the key to success in this area.

googleGoogle’s original employee Code of Conduct began with the phrase, don’t be evil. Throughout its formative years, Googlers—as the organization’s employees are known—did their best to uphold the motto. Even mainstream media loved the company for its quirky statement.

More recently Google decided to adjust the Code. Instead of starting with “don’t be evil,” the language altered and it shifted to the end of the document to read as follows:

“And remember… don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!”

At its core, “don’t be evil” is an appeal for Googlers to behave ethically. One assumes the statement holds water wherever it sits in their Code of Conduct.

The motto provides a lesson of concern for executives. Does your busy schedule and fully occupied calendar cause statements like “don’t be evil” to be ignored or overlooked? If so—and as Google demonstrates—the consequences can be drastic. Codes of conduct like “don’t be evil” are only as good as the time we spend demonstrating them.

On November 1, over 20,000 Google employees staged a company-wide walkout. They were protesting the manner in which company executives had handled what can only be described as an evil situation, a lapse in its company ethics. Indeed, Googlers chose to “speak up.”

According to Google, at least 48 people at the company have been fired for sexual misconduct over the past two years. Furthermore, former executive Andy Rubin was paid $90 million after he allegedly coerced sex from a fellow employee. Googlers were flabbergasted. In essence, the purpose of the employee walkout was to demand that the company become less evil, to properly fulfill its Code of Conduct.

It begs the ensuing question for executives: what is the relationship between our ethics, our thinking, and how fast we are running our business?

In the case of Google, one might argue senior executives were so busy they lost sight of its “don’t be evil” mantra. Instead of pausing to think about the potential negative ramifications of employees actually being evil, they continued operating in their peripatetic state driving innovation, revenues, and acquisitions while simultaneously forgoing its “don’t be evil” code.

It is a critical point for any executive in today’s business world. How much time are you spending thinking about being ethical? Furthermore, how much time are you devoting to demonstrating those ethics?

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, provides a lesson in this delicate balance of time, thinking, and ensuring ethics are done right. Since taking up the top post in 2009, Polman has demonstrated a reflective, humble yet socially responsible way of operating the company.

By listening to the feedback and ideas of employees, consumers, partners and suppliers—along with many environmental groups—Polman launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. It’s a model that acts as both the company’s ethical purpose, the manner in which the company is measured, and how its employees behave. Polman hasn’t wavered and ten years later continues to invest the time being ethical requires. The model became the company’s North Star and over the years has paid dividends in terms of employee engagement and customer satisfaction, as well as increases in revenues, EBITDA, EPS and profitability.

Marc Benioff, chairman & CEO of Salesforce provides another example. When he founded his company nearly 20 years ago, Benioff took the time to think not only about its strategic intent but its long-term purpose. “The business of business is improving the state of the world,” he has said in the past. Benioff’s 1-1-1 philanthropy model—where one percent of Salesforce’s product, time and resources are donated to the community—became its ethical purpose, its reason for being in business.

More recently, Benioff’s attention shifted to the dire state of homelessness in the San Francisco area. Again, instead of being fully consumed by meetings and discussions in the pursuit of revenues and acquisitions for Salesforce, Benioff devoted the time to demonstrate his personal ethics.

Through the support of San Francisco’s Prop C measure—an increase in annual taxes on large corporations—he sparred with the likes of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on its importance, of leading from a position of social good. Benioff inspired many employees outside of Salesforce to urge their senior leaders to not only support the measure, but to invest in the homeless problem. Eventually the measure passed and other firms began donating money to the cause.

Polman and Benioff do not suffer fools gladly. They are CEOs from two of the largest and most successful corporations in the world. Unilever’s revenues in 2017 were $62.6 billion and Salesforce’s were $8.4 billion.

But they have never forgotten their ethics, their purpose. They not only upkeep it, they carve out the time to demonstrate it.

Don’t be evil? How about make the time to be ethical.

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