The allegations were embarrassing for Deepmind and the company said it tried to dissuade its employees from talking about his treatment. But it is clear that much work needs to be done to address Deepmind’s broader culture of privacy, which has led some people in the organization to try to suppress rather than work to resolve complaints quickly.
No matter how much training firms treat their employees in the workplace, some people will behave badly. About one-third of workers in the United States and the United Kingdom are victims of sexual harassment (2) Where a firm really shows how it deals with a complaint has a handle on the problem. That’s where Google’s Deepmind seems to have fallen short.
The former Deepmind employee wrote that he was threatened with disciplinary action if he spoke to his manager or other colleagues about his allegations. And it took several months for the company to process his notes and respond to his complaints, during which time the person he reported was promoted and received a company award. Deepmind said in a statement that although it could “communicate better throughout the grievance process,” several factors contributed to the delay, including the Kovid epidemic and the availability of parties involved.
It is discouraging but perhaps not surprising that an organization like Deepmind, which declares such a high standard, will have trouble realizing that there is harassment and bullying within its walls, and will try to suppress the discussion of problems once it comes to the fore.
In an interview, the author of the open letter told me that he himself “drank cool-aid” in the belief that nothing bad could happen at DeepMind, which made it difficult for him to adapt to his own experience. (Bloomberg Opinion verifies former employee’s identity but agrees to his request not to be named for concerns about attracting more online harassment.)
He noted that Deepmind cares about maintaining its reputation as a haven for some of the brightest minds in computer science. “They want to have famous names in AI research to help attract other talents,” he said.
A spokesman for Deepmind said the company was wrong to tell its former employee that he would be disciplined for talking to others about his allegations. He said Deepmind, which Google bought for more than $ 500 million in 2014, takes all allegations of workplace misconduct very seriously and has “deliberately rejected privacy advice” about employee abuse. The man who was investigated for misconduct was fired without separation, Deepmind said in a statement.
Yet other crews seem to have received the message that it is better not to rock the boat. Matt Howley, a regional officer at the British trade union Unite the Union, which represents technical workers, said he had consulted with members of Deepmind’s staff about bullying and harassment in the division. They expressed unusually high levels of fear about the response to talking to management about their concerns, compared to the staff of other technology companies that he dealt with.
“They didn’t think it was a culture where they could raise these issues openly,” Wally said. “They felt management would be backed up no matter what.” Howley added that Deepmind employees were laid off in the same way that the department had in the past appeared to protect executives. Deepmind declined to comment on Howley’s observations.
Here’s an example that won’t inspire confidence: In 2019, Deepmind fired its co-founder Mustafa Suleiman from his management position at the company, and an investigation by an outside law firm soon found that he had threatened employees. Google then hired Suleiman in a senior vice president position at the U.S. tech giant’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. Deepmind declined to comment. Suleiman also declined to comment, although in a recent podcast, he apologized for being “in demand” in the past. Earlier this month, he launched a new AI startup in San Francisco that is “redefining human-computer interaction.” Suleiman was not involved in the recent allegations of harassment.
Since the investigation into the former employee’s claims ended in May 2020, Deepmind said it has begun additional training for employees who investigate concerns and increase support for employees who file complaints.
But ex-employees are pushing for more radical change: terminating non-disclosure agreements or NDAs for people who leave the company after allegations of abuse. He was not offered a settlement and was therefore not asked to sign such an agreement.
NDAs were designed to protect trade secrets and sensitive corporate information, but they were also at the center of abuse scandals and companies often used to silence people behind claims. Victims are often pressured into signing them, and contracts not only protect offenders but also allow them to re-offend.
Harassment does not fall under sensitive corporate information. This is certainly not a trade secret. Therefore, the NDA should not be used to prevent discussion of abuse in the workplace.
There are signs of progress. The states of California and Washington have recently passed laws protecting those who talk about harassment even after the NDA has signed it. And a number of British universities, including University College London, have pledged to end NDA use of sexual harassment this year. (1)
Deepmind says it is “digesting” an open letter from its former employee to understand what further steps it should take. A bold and positive step would be to remove the privacy clauses of the harassment settlement.
Like any organization taking this step, it could hurt their reputation in the short term by allowing employees to speak more openly about abuse on social media, blogs or media. But in the long run it will create a more honest work environment and protect the well-being of the victims. For a long time high-ranking perpetrators of harassment have been protected from concern for a clean corporate image. In the end it does not inspire too much confidence in organizations, even those who want to benefit humanity.
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(1) According to a recent survey by MSN and the UK Government.
(2) Between 2016 and 2020, more than 300 NDAs, costing 1.3 million, were used by almost a third of UK universities to resolve complaints, according to an investigation by BBC News.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Permy Olson is a Bloomberg opinion columnist covering technology. He previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of “We Are Anonymous”.