More than a dozen shareholder proposals failed as expected at Google’s annual meeting earlier this week. But they raised important questions about the massive company, which has had its share of scandals and controversy over the past year or so.
From ethical questions raised by Google products and contracts to the company’s handling of sexual harassment and treatment of contract workers, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Chairman John Hennessy and other executives got an earful from disgruntled investors, advocacy groups and employees at the meeting in Sunnyvale while protesters marched outside.
Among the defeated proposals was one that sought a breakup of the company. The presenter of the proposal, a representative of Students for a Free Tibet, urged the company to take steps now “rather than waiting for antitrust regulators to act.”
As the internet giant faces possible U.S. antitrust inquiries and calls to break it up, she said the company has “grown to a complexity that is unmanageable.”
Another proposal that failed urged the company to study and share an assessment of the human rights implications of Project Dragonfly, Google’s reported plan once again to operate a search engine in China.
“As we’ve said, we have no plans to open a search engine in China,” said Kent Walker, senior vice president for global affairs and chief legal officer for Google, during the meeting’s question-and-answer session.
CEO Sundar Pichai said in a New York Times interview in November, after employees protested — and quit — over the issue, “It’s not even clear to me that search in China is the product we need to do today.”
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There were more than a few mentions of recent employee protests and actions during the meeting, including one in November when thousands of workers walked off the job in response to a report of huge payouts to executives accused of sexual misconduct and harassment.
A proposal for a clawback policy, in which an executive would be forced to pay the company back in case of misconduct, did not pass, either.
After the proposal to install a non-executive employee representative on the board of directors failed, a Google employee said during the Q&A: “What’s really stuck out to me recently is this shift when we’re challenged,” she said. “I’ve seen executives feign powerlessness as if we’re not a company the size of some countries.
“We’re told we can’t take dramatic action. When we respond this way it’s disingenuous. We’re choosing to use our power to solve the wrong problems, and we can do better.”