DeepMind 'grossly inadequate' at tackling sexual harassment, says former staffer

Alphabet AI lab under fire after bosses 'dragged out' probe into abuse

A former DeepMind employee has blasted the AI lab for being, in her view, "grossly inadequate" in dealing with internal sexual harassment. She also urged the organization to end its policy of NDAs that prevent victims from speaking out.

The ex-staffer said she was subjected to "severely disturbing sexual and behavioral harassment," and received emails and texts that contained "explicit confessions of acts of sexual violence against women, and threats of self-harm," from a senior researcher.

Said senior researcher even alluded to having had sex with colleagues at work, and having had visited sex workers during office hours, according to the former staffer. She drafted and submitted a six-page internal complaint in 2019. Yet, even with evidence of this abuse, management at DeepMind did not resolve the situation until almost a year later, she said in an open letter this week. 

"It was, I believe, intentionally dragged out, and many of my claims were initially minimized or outright ignored," she said. "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, yet throughout the investigation the person was never suspended."

After she filed her grievance, the senior researcher was promoted, and even given an award during the investigation process, we're told. The researcher was eventually fired in 2020. A spokesperson from DeepMind confirmed to The Register it investigated the sexual harassment allegations and the researcher was dismissed without any severance payment.

"Any incident of sexual assault or harassment is abhorrent," the company said in a statement. "DeepMind takes all allegations of workplace misconduct extremely seriously and we place our employees' safety at the core of any actions we take…We expect everyone – regardless of their role or seniority – to behave in a way that lives up to our values. We're sorry that our former employee experienced what they did and we recognize that they found the process difficult."

The timeline for resolving the case took longer than the two weeks stated in the employee handbook. "There is no world in which it is acceptable for HR to take months to resolve harassment cases, especially when hard evidence exists," the former staffer, who spoke at length to the Financial Times, continued in her open letter.

As well as calling for swifter grievance resolution, and improved internal systems for reporting abuse, she also criticized DeepMind's policy of making staff sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent victims from discussing their situation or speaking out. 

"Very few people I've spoken to are able to share their story due to the company's restrictive NDAs," she wrote.

"Those of us in grievance processes are told we could face disciplinary action if we speak to anyone else, even our managers, about our cases — robbing us of basic support. Many former and current employees have held back their stories for fear of the company suing them or retaliating against them, ensuring these stories stay hidden from coworkers and the general public.

"This letter comes after years of failing to effect change from within. DeepMind and Alphabet leadership cannot continue to bury their head in the sand."

DeepMind said it has made some internal changes to improve workplace safety since the aforementioned investigation. 

"This includes a commitment to communicate more clearly with all DeepMinders about how to raise concerns, enhanced annual training for managers and all employees with respect to limiting unconscious bias, rolling out additional training for those who investigate concerns, and increased support for employees who raise concerns during and throughout an investigation," a company spokesperson told us. 

"We are digesting our former employee's open letter to understand what further action we can and/or should take in the spirit of our commitment to continuously learn and improve." ®

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