'Feared for safety' | Google-owned firm sparks outrage after 'ignoring' sexual assault claims

Google-owned firm sparks outrage after 'ignoring' sexual assault claims

HR bosses at a Google-owned tech firm have been accused of ‘mishandling’, ‘minimising’ and ‘outright ignoring’ a former employee’s allegations that she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker, the Financial Times has reported.

The former employee at DeepMind, an AI technology company based in London, raised concerns over how grievances are dealt with, after complaining that a colleague had sexually assaulted her twice, according to the publication.

In an open letter posted online, the woman, who remained anonymous but is referred to as “Julia” by the FT, explained that although she had “concrete evidence and reported [her] ongoing harassment to DeepMind HR - they took almost a year to resolve my case.”

She added: “Despite years of pledges to 'do better', my case convinced me that Alphabet’s [Google’s parent company] HR (aka People & Culture) practices remain grossly inadequate.”

DeepMind, which is one of the leading artificial intelligence firms in the world, employs more than 1,000 people and was acquired by Google in 2014. It told the FT that the allegations made against the company were “investigated thoroughly, and the individual who was investigated for misconduct was dismissed without any severance payments”.

A spokesperson said the firm told the FT it takes all allegations of workplace misconduct seriously and “expects everyone — regardless of their role or seniority — to behave in a way that lives up to our values”.

DeepMind added that, following Julia’s complaints, several changes had been made to workplace policies, particularly around the investigation processes and manager training, the FT reported.

However, the publication also reports that, in a letter to her former colleagues, the victim Julia highlighted “major flaws” in how DeepMind handles staff, alleging extensive delays in workplace investigations, and “insufficient safeguarding of sexual assault victims”.

In the open letter, posted to Medium.com, Julia wrote: “The details of my story are less important than how HR handled it.”

She went on: “It was, I believe, intentionally dragged out, and many of my claims were initially minimised or outright ignored. During and after the case, HR would go without updating me or responding to my inquiries for weeks or months. You can imagine I was not only concerned for my own safety, but that of other women at the company...”.

“Thankfully, the person in question was ultimately dismissed, but there is no world in which it is acceptable for HR to take months to resolve harassment cases, especially when hard evidence exists. This is wildly out of line with the two weeks promised in Alphabet’s employee handbook, as well as industry-accepted ethical standards set by professional HR bodies.”

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In an email in August 2020 to DeepMind’s bosses, seen by the FT, Julia wrote: “According to your own findings, I was subjected to sexual harassment, assault and abuse... I will never be the same person. I have spent almost the entire last year fearing for my safety. There is absolutely... no reason why the investigation was so dysfunctional.”

No restrictions, such a suspension or docked pay, were placed on the alleged perpetrator during the investigation. He was dismissed in September 2020, nine months after the complaints were first raised.

DeepMind said it places “employees’ safety and wellbeing at the core of any actions we take in an investigation like this and while the process may have been difficult, checks were made during the process to ensure that they were safe and felt safe”. It said the COVID-19 pandemic and several other factors were to blame for the lengthy delays in the investigation process.

Worrying rise in harassment claims

Sadly, such cases are not unique to DeepMind. In fact, if recent data is to be believed, it seems that the majority of companies are failing to instil sexual harassment training among their workforce.

A 2021 TalentLMS and Purple Campaign report polled more than 1,200 employees, and found that 92% of women surveyed said that unwanted physical contact counts as sexual harassment, compared to 78% of men surveyed.

Suggestive remarks were considered harassment by 88% of women and just 69% of men; likewise, sexual jokes were frowned upon by 86% of women and 69% of men.

Additionally, 73% of women surveyed said comments regarding someone's gender identity and expression were sexual harassment, compared to 47% of men.

Preventing sexual harassment

According to Acas, sexual harassment is “unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature” and the law protects employees, workers, contractors, self-employed and job applicants from this.

"For this to be considered as sexual harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either violated someone’s dignity, whether it was intended or not, or created a hostile environment for them, whether it was intended or not," the governmental body adds.

Data carried out by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) discovered that 52% of women have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work - from groping to inappropriate jokes.

As such, it is crucial that employers do all that they can to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

In a previous interview, Katie Hodson, Partner and Head of Employment at SAS Daniels LLP, told HR Grapevine that in instances of sexual harassment, employers should have “robust policies in place”.

She pointed out that “staff needs to be clear that this behaviour is unacceptable and aware of the consequences of breaching the policies. This could be supported by staff training.

“Further, any and all complaints should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. This would include asking relevant questions and looking at the evidence with a clear and unbiased viewpoint,” Hodson concluded.

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