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Google's new HR chief confronts a daunting to-do list

Fiona Cicconi, the AstraZeneca executive who was named Google's new HR chief late on Tuesday, will face a daunting list of major problems when she starts work at the search giant in January.

Why it matters: Competition for talent remains fierce in the tech industry and critical to Google's ambitions.

Here are the top items on the list of troubles Cicconi, along with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, will have to address.

Commitment to diversity:

  • Questions for Google in this realm long predate the recent ouster of Timnit Gebru. But her dismissal served as a sharp reminder of how different working at the company can be for people of color, particularly women of color.
  • Outrage at Gebru's treatment isn't subsiding, with a letter from others on her team Wednesday calling for changes in management.
  • Google says addressing issues around diversity, equity and inclusion will be a top priority for Cicconi to address.
  • Many at Google say they've grown tired of words and want to see concrete actions taken in support of underrepresented groups.

Legacy of sexual harassment:

  • The company has made some changes in this area, such as eliminating mandatory non-disclosure agreements.
  • But it still hasn't fully reckoned with a past in which sexual harassment and impropriety were tolerated or swept under the carpet, sometimes with large payouts to executives accused of such behavior.

Concerns over business practices: Empowered in the early days to speak up, workers have found their voices less welcome of late when it comes to criticizing business decisions, especially over military and government work.

A two-tier workforce: Google, like many big Silicon Valley companies, has a large, largely well-paid full-time staff as well as an equally large pool of less-well-compensated workers who are contractors, temporary workers or vendors who handle everything from meal service and janitorial services to content moderation and lower profile coding work.

The pandemic and shift to remote work: Google recently announced that most employees will be able to work remotely through September 2021 and it anticipates a more flexible office schedule even when buildings more fully re-open. The company is conducting a variety of pilot programs around flexible work schedules and office setups.

Catch up quick: Cicconi has spent the past decade and a half heading HR teams at pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Roche, but before that worked for several years at Cisco, heading its people team in the Europe, Middle East and Africa unit. She's now based in the U.K. but will relocate to Silicon Valley. Her official title is global people operations lead, reporting to Pichai.

  • She's written frequently on the importance of diversity, though many at Google have grown tired of words and want to see concrete actions taken in support of underrepresented groups.
  • At AstraZeneca, Cicconi established a number of programs for working parents in the areas of child care and education.
  • Her predecessor at Google, Eileen Naughton, announced in February that she would leave the company once a successor was found. The announcement of her departure predates Google's most recent challenges.

Our thought bubble: Google also faces morale-sapping regulatory scrutiny and multiple antitrust lawsuits that could make it harder to retain talented employees. Today's disgruntled worker could be tomorrow's star antitrust witness.

Yes, but: Google remains one of the most powerful companies in tech, and the company says interest in working there remains "higher than ever." It says it received 3.3 million job applications in 2019, up from 2.8 million applications in 2018.

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