Google employees in Europe could soon have more power to challenge company decisions after the search giant approved the creation of a council that will represent the interests of thousands of its workers across the continent.
Earlier this month, a group of 153 Google employees from 11 European offices wrote to the company’s management requesting the establishment of the council, according to three people familiar with the matter. Last week, Google’s management agreed to take the first steps toward creating the council and will soon begin negotiating with employees about its scope, the people said.
The creation of such works councils– which aim to give employees the right to be consulted by management about issues such as organizational changes or job cuts — is required by the European Union if enough of a company’s employees in at least two countries file a written request.
The works council is likely to include employee representatives from more than 35 Google offices across Europe, according to the people familiar with the matter. It will meet several times annually in Dublin, the people said.
A spokeswoman for Alphabet Inc.’s Google said in a statement that the company had “always encouraged constructive and open dialog with Googlers, and we always will.”
She added, “We look forward to working together with our employees on this.”
The move could represent an opportunity for Google and its European employees to improve relations that in recent years have frayed over working conditions and decisions made by senior leadership at the company. In the last two years, the search giant has endured a series of internal protests as employees have complained about controversial contracts with the U.S. military, a plan to build a censored search engine in China and multimillion dollar payments to executives accused of sexual harassment.
“The point of the works council is to be the voice of the employees — to express concerns and to find better solutions,” said Gabriel Kerneis, a Google software engineer who is based in Paris and was involved with the effort to set up the council. “We hope that it will create a fairer process.”
The works council can’t veto company decisions, but the process means that employees should be consulted and can sometimes cast a vote to oppose or approve certain measures, allowing for greater input into management plans before they are finalized, said Kerneis.
Google already has a works council in place in Paris, as mandated by French law. A similar council is currently being set up by employees in the company’s Zurich office, according to a person familiar with developments there. However, the nation-level councils can only consider issues relevant to their respective offices.
Last year, employees who were involved in organizing internal protests at Google alleged that the company had retaliated against them, demoting them from their positions and effectively forcing them to leave the company. The search giant was also accused of developing an internal spy tool to monitor worker activism and of trying to shut down workers’ attempts to learn about their rights in Zurich. Google has denied allegations that it has sought to suppress employee activism.
After those incidents, employees who were involved in trying to establish the European works council said that they were concerned that their efforts to gather support would be met with a harsh response from senior leadership, who they feared might try to shut them down.
In the end, employees were pleasantly surprised by the positive response they say they received from company management, according to several employees.
“We didn’t know what would happen, but there’s not been any blow back so far, which has been great,” said Hannah Pascal, a senior software engineer at Google who is based in London and was involved with the effort to set up the council. “These issues that are coming up — complaining about retaliation, or taking on dodgy contracts — we hope the council is going to allow us to have more of an eye-level discussion with management about them.”
There is a legal mandate in the E.U. for the creation of works councils. A 2009 directive states that if a group of 100 employees from offices in two or more E.U. countries submit a written request for the establishment of a works council, central management must initiate negotiations to form one.
Other large American technology companies, including Oracle Corp., HP Inc. and Dell Technologies Inc., have similar works councils in place in Europe. The results have been mixed. In 2012, for instance, the European works council at Hewlett-Packard sued the company, alleging that it had obstructed the council’s right to be consulted on planned job cuts.
“There’s resistance from some employers, but others have embraced it and recognized it is a good way of developing trust among staff,” said Catherine Barnard, professor of E.U. law at Cambridge University. “It depends how cooperative or otherwise both sides are, and how willing both sides are to engage.”