The recent Google walkouts inspired one employee to make a workplace complaint public — and it worked

  • Google clarified its internal process for requesting disability accommodation after employee Cathy Fitzpatrick challenged its wording.
  • She says the company's change shows that speaking out about an issue can make a difference, and she encourages other employees to do so.
  • Google specifically, and the tech industry generally, have seen an uptick in employee organizing on a range of topics, including diversity issues and controversial business contracts.
Aly Song | Reuters

When Google changed the wording of its internal process for granting disability accommodation late last week, employee Cathy Fitzpatrick took it as proof that you can effect change by speaking out.

In the past year, the tech industry generally and Google employees in particular have shown an unusually high level of labor organizing, with employees sounding off about multiple workplace issues, including diversity and controversial company business contracts. Google made changes to its sexual harassment and misconduct policies after employees staged massive walkouts earlier this month (though the company ignored several of the organizers' demands like adding an employee representative to Alphabet's board).

Fitzpatrick's complaint had to do with Google's policy around providing special accommodation for employees with disabilities, like providing workspace adjustments for someone with an injury or tailored communication resources for an autistic person. She says Google's policy appeared to require employees with disabilities to provide medical documentation before it would discuss accommodation.

She says that an anonymous internal mailing list for employees experiencing mental illness was rife with complaints about Google's process, and that one co-worker waited seven months to request accommodation because the documentation requirement was intimidating.

Fitzpatrick first brought up her issues with the process internally about a year ago, but the company wouldn't budge. So Fitzpatrick posted a long thread on Twitter laying out why she thought the process violated state and federal law.

Google softened its language about the process on its internal site soon after Fitzpatrick complained publicly. Instead of beginning with "Discuss your workplace barriers with your medical provider," the revised site begins with "Where appropriate, we may ask you to provide information about your condition from a third party (e.g., your medical provider)...."

The company told CNBC that it "has never required employees to provide medical evidence as the first step in our accommodation process," and anyone who thought otherwise was misinterpreting the policy.

But Fitzpatrick is pleased with the change and thinks Google's revised wording is an improvement, since it removes previously implied red tape for employees with clear disabilities.

"When a process doesn't accurately describe the circumstances under which documentation can be requested, it has a chilling effect on people's willingness to ask for an accommodation," Fitzpatrick said. "I hope that this change, though minor, will be the beginning of what feels like a less adversarial process for those seeking accommodation."

According to federal law and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance, a company is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act if "as a matter of policy or practice" it refuses to engage with an employee about accommodation without first receiving medical documentation, "at least as applied to any employee with an obvious disability who requests a reasonable accommodation," Matt Koski, program director at the National Employment Lawyers Association, told CNBC.

Koski declined to address Google's specific case, though Google's new wording makes its compliance with the law more explicit.

A culture that discourages talking about labor issues

Fitzpatrick said recent events spurred her decision to speak publicly about the issue. As the company responded to massive employee walkouts over its handling of sexual misconduct with salvos about inclusivity and change, she grew frustrated.

"The self-congratulatory messaging was a little overwhelming considering some of the major issues they still had not addressed, including their accommodation policy," she said.

After she posted on Twitter, she says, she received two types of messages: kudos from employees from a range of companies thanking her for speaking out about the issue and warnings from her peers at Google that she could get in trouble even for posting the accommodation process.

"Inside of Google, there's still a culture that discourages people from talking about labor issues," she said. Fitzpatrick knows that California statutes (and Google's own employee communications policy) protect workers who talk about their labor conditions, but she doesn't believe that enough of her co-workers realize their rights. "I think that employees should be willing to talk about them publicly so they can get feedback and find allies."

Fitzpatrick points to an ongoing gender pay gap lawsuit against Google led by former employees Kelly Ellis, Holly Pease, and Kelli Wisuri as an inspiring current example of a challenge to the company's employment practices. Expects more to come.

Fitzpatrick herself is accustomed to challenging the status quo.

In 2014, she won a landmark transgender rights case after suing the province of Alberta, Canada, to switch the gender on her birth certificate even though she did not have sex reassignment surgery, as was previously mandated for changes.

"When I filed my lawsuit in Alberta regarding the birth certificate issuance rules, every province in Canada had the same rules as the ones I was challenging, and people thought I was crazy for challenging something so common and universally accepted," she said.

Correction: This story was revised to correct that the transgender lawsuit was against Alberta, a Canadian province.