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Google advised mental health care when workers complained about racism and sexism

"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," said one employee.
Benjamin Cruz was one of 10 google employees who when they reported problems with race discrimination at the company were told to take a mental health break.
Benjamin Cruz was one of 10 Google employees who were told to take a mental health leave after they reported problems with race discrimination at the company.Allison Zaucha / for NBC News

Benjamin Cruz, a former instructional designer in Google’s Cloud division, was caught off guard when a colleague told them that their skin was much darker than she expected.

Cruz, who is Mexican American and prefers to be identified by the pronouns they/them, reported the incident to human resources in 2019 where personnel told them they should “assume good intent,” Cruz recalled in an interview. Unsatisfied, Cruz asked human resources to look deeper into the incident, and an HR official said an investigation into the matter had been closed, Cruz said.

So, Cruz sought help from human resources again. The solution? Urge Cruz to take medical leave and tend to their mental health before moving to a new role in the company. Cruz went on medical leave, and hoped to take the company up on its offer for a new position, they said. But Cruz was turned down from every role they applied for, so they were forced to quit.

“After I made that complaint, my work started getting pushed out from under me, but my team acted like everything was fine. I wanted to find help,” Cruz said. “When the medical leave was recommended to me, it was like an automatic process.”

Benjamin Cruz in Los Angeles.
Benjamin Cruz in Los Angeles.Allison Zaucha / for NBC News

Google declined to comment on Cruz’s allegations.

Cruz’s experience with Google’s internal human resources personnel echoes that of several former and current Google employees, including two prominent Black women, Timnit Gebru and April Curley, who were pushed out of Google at the end of last year. Both women were known for their advocacy for increased diversity in the tech industry, and when their complaints about how the company handled racial and gender discrimination reached human resources, they were both given the same advice: undergo mental health counseling or take medical leave.

In the weeks since both women’s departures, nine other current and former Google employees have come forward to say they were treated the same way. They consulted human resources after colleagues made comments about their skin color or Black hairstyles, or asked if they were sexually interested in their teammates. They also contacted human resources to report retaliation after protesting sexual harassment issues and to advocate for raises for Black people to match white employees’ pay. Each time, human resource personnel recommended the employees seek therapy or take medical leave to address their mental health — despite their mental well-being having nothing to do with their complaints. An additional 12 current and former Google employees confirmed that this is a common practice at Google’s human resources department.

“Going on leave is so normalized. 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,” said a former Google employee, who is a person of color and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasnot authorized to speak about his work at Google. He went on medical leave last year after he said he had numerous unproductive conversations with human resources about how his colleagues discussed race.

In early 2020, a Black woman attended a Google meeting about supporting women at the company where data was presented that showed the rate that underrepresented minority employees were leaving the company. When she said that Black, Latina and Native American women have vastly different experiences than their white female colleagues and advised that Google address the issue internally, her manager brusquely responded, telling her that her suggestion was not relevant, the woman said.

The woman then complained to human resources, who advised her to coach the manager about her problematic response or take medical leave to tend to her own mental health, she said. The woman also spoke on the condition of anonymity because she’s still an employee and not permitted to speak to reporters.

“It felt belittling. I wasn’t in shock because I had heard it before. I had watched other leaders in the organization take these mental health leaves and then disappear,” she said. “It was clear that they weren’t going to take me seriously.”

Google said in a statement that the company is committed to supporting employees who raise concerns about workplace treatment.

“We have a well-defined process for how employees can raise concerns and we work to be extremely transparent about how we handle complaints,” said Jennifer Rodstrom, a Google spokeswoman. “All concerns reported to us are investigated rigorously, and we take firm action against employees who violate our policies.”

Pushed out

Gebru and Curley worked in vastly different parts of Google. Gebru was a lead researcher on Google’s Ethical AI team and is one of the highest-profile Black women in her field, known for her work uncovering racial bias in facial recognition systems. Curley was a tech recruiter who brought in new talent from historically Black colleges and universities. Workers said they felt motivated to speak after Gebru and Curley’s departures, in which both women said they were fired after speaking out about racism and sexism at the company.

Curley is one of several Google employees that reported problems with race discrimination within the company.
April Curley was a diversity recruiter at Google. Joe Buglewicz / for NBC News

Google would not comment on Gebru’s ousting. But the company’s head of research said Gebru resigned. The company declined to comment on Curley’s termination, but said in a statement it disagrees with Curley’s characterization of her departure.

In her six years at Google, Curley said she never received a raise or promotion, which depends on managers’ input. She was assigned nine different managers during her tenure, two of whom she reported to human resources for allegedly mistreating her and her team, a majority of whom were Black women. Each time, Curley says she was told that Google had investigated the complaints and found nothing wrong. She said she was then offered mental health support or the opportunity to take medical leave.

Curley said that, in 2019, a manager asked her which of her teammates she would sleep with. “I gave him a lot of attitude after that, and it went downhill from there,” Curley said. She said she experienced retaliation in the months that followed, including being regularly talked down to in front of her colleagues.

She filed a formal complaint about her experience with this manager. Then, in December 2019, Google cut her pay by $20,000, Curley said. Also following her complaint, Curley was put on a performance improvement plan, a formal agreement about how her work would improve, which only added more stress. After telling human resources officials she continued to feel anxious about her work situation, they advised her to take medical leave to manage her mental health. Google declined to comment on Curley’s allegations.

“It felt like they didn’t care about my mental health,” she said.

The first time, she took the recommended medical leave. But Curley did not take the second leave. She, along with several other employees, said when they went on medical leave, they returned to find they had new managers or were moved into new parts of the organization. Because these new managers did not know them well enough to provide adequate reviews, they did not receive raises or promotions.

“I was supporting my family, my nieces and nephews and my mom, and to not be able to do that is traumatic in a different way,” Curley said.

Image: April Curley.
April Curley. Joe Buglewicz / for NBC News

Diversity reports

For years, Google has highlighted its commitment to a diverse workforce. In 2014, Google became one of the first tech companies to publicize its workforce’s racial and gender makeup in an annual diversity report. The 2020 report revealed that Google saw a less than 1 percent increase in Black hires from 2019 to 2020 across the company. The percentage of Latino employees working at Google rose by 0.2 percent that year.

But none of Google’s competitors have done much better. Apple hasn’t shared diversity data since 2018, but reported a 2 percent drop in the number of Black employees in technical roles from 2016 to 2018. Facebook reports its percentage of Black employees in technical roles rose 0.2 percent from 2019 to 2020 and increased 0.1 percent companywide.

While Google reportedly spent $265 million on diversity efforts in 2014 and 2015, it still didn’t result in much change. From 2014 to 2019, Google increased its Black hires across its workforce by 2 percent, according to its 2020 report. It increased its Latino hires by 0.7 percent from 2014 to 2019, the report shows. While the company would not reveal how many employees work at Google specifically, The San Jose Mercury News reported last year that it had about 23,000 employees at its main campus in Mountain View, California, and 50,000 employees statewide, according to its economic impact report. Google had more than 10,000 employees in New York state, according to its own economic impact report.

“The fact that they’re spending a lot of money on DEI efforts and yet the actual composition of the company isn’t changing means that they’re not truly committed to changing the environment,” said Meredith Broussard, a New York University professor who has written extensively on Silicon Valley culture. “If tech companies truly cared about having more diversity in their ranks, they would fix it.”

Suggesting therapy

Before Gebru’s departure, she said she regularly raised issues on internal team mailing lists and with her managers about how women were treated at Google. But when her messages were forwarded to human resource specialists, Gebru said they advised her to seek out mental health resources.

“They’re like, ‘Well, if there’s something wrong with you, here are all these therapy resources.’” said Gebru. “And I would respond that no amount of support system is going to get rid of Google’s hostile work environment. I have friends. I go dancing. I have hobbies and therapy already.”

Following Gebru’s departure, Google held a forum for employees to discuss racism at the company, according to three current employees who attended. The first half, they said, was dedicated to sharing Google’s side of the story.

“A good 20 minutes of the call was just them discrediting her. This was a clear way of showing you that this is what could happen to you if you speak up,” one Google employee said. That call was followed by another session for Black employees to discuss their concerns with Gebru’s case with a counselor present.

“People were sharing really brilliant reflections on how painful Dr. Gebru’s firing was for them. And the therapist was just repeating it back saying, ‘Yes, yes, I hear you,’” said another Google worker who was on the call. “It was this pattern. Their real concerns were dismissed as feelings.”

The three employees spoke anonymously because they are not permitted to speak to the news media. Google declined to comment on the meeting.

Google confirmed to NBC that it concluded its investigation into Gebru’s ousting, but did not make its findings public. The company said it will implement new procedures to handle employee exits and increase its staff handling employee retention, according to Axios.

Workplace diversity and inclusion experts say it is common for human resource officials to use mental health and well-being as a tactic to ignore discrimination — and even participate in it.

“The broader pattern of HR not being supportive, continuing to make the person who was discriminated against the problem in some way rather than the discrimination and the perpetrator of the discrimination as the problem — those are patterns that we have seen in our research,” said Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and co-editor of the book, "Race, Work, and Leadership."

Not sick

Current and former Google employees who are white say they faced similar treatment from human resources when they spoke up about the company’s racial and gender discrimination issues.

In late 2018, Claire Stapleton, who worked at Google for 12 years, helped organize a walkout to protest how the company’s handled accusations of sexual harassment and assault. The demonstration came after a New York Times investigation detailed how the creator of Android received a $90 million exit package even though the company found that a sexual assault claim against him was credible.

Claire Stapleton, an organizer of the 2018 Google walkout over sexual harassment and misconduct, in New York, November 2019.
Claire Stapleton helped organize a 2018 walkout at Google.Dina Litovsky / Redux

After organizing the protest, Stapleton said she complained to human resources that her manager had demoted her. She hoped HR would provide a mediator to help find a solution. Instead a human resources counselor told Stapleton to try mindfulness techniques to improve her relationship with her manager, according to Stapleton. Another human resources director recommended she speak with a third director who specializes in employee benefits. That official suggested Stapleton take a medical leave, she said.

“I was raising a retaliation claim and then she said, ‘Oh, but did anyone tell you about medical leave?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I know what medical leave is, but that’s not what I need. I’m not sick.’ And she was like, ‘Oh no, no, no, it’s not like that. We put people on it all the time,'” Stapleton said.

She did not take the medical leave, but resigned instead.

Google says it provides multiple ways for employees to raise concerns and investigates all retaliation reports. “If an employee wants to explore a leave of absence or have a workplace accommodation, Google’s Benefits team will work with the individual on next steps,” Google’s Rodstrom said.

In 2019, another current Google employee, who is white and spoke anonymously because he’s not permitted to speak to the news media, raised concerns about pay disparities between white and Black employees with similar experience levels. He hoped one of his Black colleagues would get a raise. Instead, he was ignored and then told to stop asking about it, he said.

“After months, I was like I can’t even show up to work another day the way they’re dragging me along,” the employee said. “And then basically at the end I said, ‘I need some options,’ and HR said, ‘You can accept severance or you can take a medical leave.'”

On Feb. 5, Margaret Mitchell, the co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team with Gebru, wrote in a blog post that Gebru “has been treated completely inappropriately, with intense disrespect, and she deserves an apology.” On Feb. 19, Mitchell announced “I’m fired.” Google confirmed Mitchell’s firing to NBC, and said she had violated the company’s code of conduct by removing documents and employee data from Google’s internal system.

Mitchell said in a statement after she was fired, “I tried to use my position to raise concerns to Google about race and gender inequity, and to speak up about Google’s deeply problematic firing of Dr. Gebru. To now be fired has been devastating.”

CORRECTION (March 7, 6 p.m. ET) A previous version of the article misstated what Google human resources advised Timnit Gebru to do after she reported issues with how women were treated at the company. She was advised to seek mental health care, not take medical leave. The article also misstated Margaret Mitchell's job status at Google. Mitchell was a co-leader of the Ethical AI Team at Google with Gebru; she did not work under Gebru.