Google HR playbook in the news: tell harassment victims that they have mental health problems

NBC News has reported today on what’s been widely known anecdotally as a common Google HR tactic: treat harassment victims as the problem, tell them that they have mental health problems, and refer them to counseling. This practice both protects harassers in positions of power, plus it potentially weakens any future litigation by the victim, since Google can say "see, this person was seeking medical care for mental health issues, it really was all in their head." The tactic of accusing a harassment victim of being mentally ill dates back at least to the 1990's, when it was successfully used against Anita Hill after she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

Stories like this, which NBC News has now validated with nearly two dozen current and former Google employees, are why I always recommend that if you're in tech and you experience harassment, the first conversation you have should be with an employment or anti-harassment attorney, definitely not with corporate HR, and also not with your manager, who has had it drilled into them via annual "keeping it legal" training sessions to always report incidents directly to HR. In the U.S., one source of legal referrals is the Legal Network for Gender Equality and its sister project, the Times Up Legal Defense Fund. Both are projects of the DC-based National Women's Law Center.

Some extracts from the NBC News article appear below.

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

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... [HR's] solution? Urge Cruz to take medical leave and tend to their mental health...

Cruz’s experience with Google’s internal human resources personnel echoes that of... two prominent Black women, Timnit Gebru and April Curley, who were pushed out of Google at the end of last year. ... 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 and 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 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...

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."  [...]


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