Google under fire for 'problematic' response to employee racism complaints

An employment law expert tells IT Pro what the company should have done instead

A photo of an encyclopaedia definition of the word "discrimination"

Google Cloud’s HR department allegedly told an employee to take mental health leave when they disclosed an incident of racial discrimination, without taking any action against the accused.

That's according NBC News, which spoke to Google Cloud’s former instructional designer Benjamin Cruz, one of 10 Google employees who were told to take mental health leave after they reported having faced discriminatory conduct while working at the company.

Cruz recounted how, in 2019, they were told by a colleague that 'their skin was much darker than she expected’. When Cruz informed HR of the incident, they were advised to take medical leave in order to tend to their mental health, as well as to move to a new role in the company once they return. 

However, once Cruz came back from leave and applied for a new position within Google, they were turned down from every role, ultimately forcing them to quit. 

“When the medical leave was recommended to me, it was like an automatic process,” Cruz told NBC News.

Barry Stanton, partner and head of employment at specialist tech law firm Boyes Turner, told IT Pro that “asking those who have raised the complaint to take leave is likely to make them feel more victimised”. 

“They have done their job, others have, allegedly, behaved inappropriately, yet the transgressor is allowed to remain in situ,” he said, adding that “there are many ways to address the issue”.

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“A more measured approach would see the HR team taking time to understand the issue and investigating it through a normal grievance process. Part of that might involve a discussion about what the complainer wishes to do whilst the grievance is being investigated.

"Can contact with the person they have raised issues about be minimised, does the complainant need support in the interim, if so what? How frequently will the HR team check in to ensure everything is okay? Moving an individual based solely on a complaint, is problematic, suspending them even more so, as suspension is not a neutral act.”

Companies could also look into the minimum standard of fairness indicated by the ACAS codes of practice, which, according to Stanton, “suggests that having heard from the complainant, the next step might be to talk privately to the person complained about”. 

“Equally, if there is will on both sides to address the issue, a workplace mediation might be an appropriate way to allow both parties to have their say, explain how certain behaviours make them feel and seek a way of working together going forward. Equally, if it is clear that there are significantly heightened stress levels signposting the employee affected to an employee assistance programme may be appropriate,” he added.

A Google spokesperson told IT Pro that the company has "a well-defined process for how employees can raise concerns".

"We work to be extremely transparent about how we handle complaints. All concerns reported to us are investigated rigorously, and we take firm action against employees who violate our policies," they added.

The news of Cruz’s treatment follows the tech giant’s decision to fire their Ethical AI team co-lead Timnit Gebru. In an email to a Google mailing list sent late last year, Gebru complained that she was "constantly dehumanised" while working at Google, adding there was no incentive to hire more women at the company and that Google retaliated when she tried to raise those issues.

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