Google tells harassment victims to take “medical leave,” report finds

By | March 8, 2021
Sunset, over the Google empire.
Enlarge / Sunset, over the Google empire.

A new report alleges that Google employees who report experiencing gender or racial harassment or discrimination routinely get told to take “medical leave” and seek mental health treatment—only to be shoved aside when they try to come back.

Nearly a dozen current and former Google employees told NBC News that company HR told instructed to seek mental health treatment or take medical leave “after colleagues made comments about their skin color or Black hairstyles, or asked if they were sexually interested in their teammates.” Another dozen current and former Google employees told NBC the practice is common within the company.

“I can think of 10 people that I know of in the last year that have gone on mental health leave because of the way they were treated,” one former Google employee told NBC News. He himself had taken medical leave “after he said he had numerous unproductive conversations with human resources about how his colleagues discussed race.”

Those breaks mostly served to push people out of the organization, either quickly or slowly, sources said. Multiple employees told NBC that when they returned from a recommended leave, they found themselves assigned to new managers or new parts of the company. Those changes, in turn, suppressed positive performance reviews, due to lack of time to build up new relationships and work histories, and so those employees did not receive promotions or raises when they otherwise could have.

Another employee told NBC that after they experienced racism at Google, they took HR up on the offer to take medical leave and move to a different position when they came back. On return, however, the employee was turned down from every single internal role they applied for, and so they were forced to leave Google.

Google spokesperson Jennifer Rodstrom told NBC the company has “a well-defined process for how employees can raise concerns and we work to be extremely transparent about how we handle complaints,” adding, “All concerns reported to us are investigated rigorously, and we take firm action against employees who violate our policies.”

Minority reports

Women, especially Black and Latinx women, are drastically underrepresented at Google, according to the company’s own data.

Google’s 2020 diversity report (PDF) found that Google employees overall were 51.7 percent white and 41.9 percent Asian. Black workers represented only 3.7 percent of the company’s 2020 workforce, and Latinx workers 5.9 percent. (Less than 1 percent of Google employees were Native American.)

The picture grows even more stark broken down on gender lines. Globally, 68 percent of Google employees are men and 32 percent are women. Only 2 percent of all Google employees are Latinx women, and 1.6 percent are Black women, according to the report. The numbers are even worse when it comes to leadership positions within the company, about 66 percent of which are held by white employees.

Google’s diversity report also focuses on inclusion, in addition to diversity, which helps companies retain employees who feel a sense of belonging and support rather than a sense of tokenism or being singled out. Recent events and reports, however, cast doubt on the effectiveness of those efforts.

In particular, the December departure of well-known AI ethics head Timnit Gebru thrust Google’s inclusivity efforts into the spotlight. Google said Gebru resigned, but Gebru (who is Black) said Google pushed her out, describing a pervasive attitude inside the company to silence marginalized voices, including women and people of color.

Gebru said that she, too, was told to go seek mental health treatment when she reported issues to her managers about how women were treated inside Google. “And I would respond that no amount of support system is going to get rid of Google’s hostile work environment,” Gebru told NBC.

Google has in recent years faced several suits related to its handling of sexual harassment and racial discrimination in the workplace. A trio of former Google employees sued in 2017, alleging that women inside the company were systematically pushed into lower-paying jobs. A 2018 lawsuit accused Google of fostering a “bro culture”, with retaliation against women who complained about experiencing sexual harassment on the job.

Thousands of employees staged a walkout in 2018 to protest Google’s handling of sexual harassment allegations, in the wake of reports that found three senior executives received multimillion-dollar payouts to leave the company after they were credibly accused of misconduct. Shareholders sued Alphabet, Google’s parent company, in the wake of those allegations; Google settled that suit in 2020.

Earlier this year, Google also agreed to settle with federal regulators over allegations that it systematically underpaid women software engineers and unfairly passed over women and Asian candidates for software engineering roles.