Artificial intelligence research at DeepMind, a unit of Google, is pledged to “benefit humanity.” A more practical issue may need to be resolved first: the freedom to speak openly about alleged workplace mistreatment.
One former employee wrote an open letter last week criticizing DeepMind for preventing her from speaking to colleagues and managers after she started being harassed by a colleague. After she was sexually and behaviorally harassed by a senior colleague for several months, she claimed it took DeepMind nearly a year to resolve the matter.
For DeepMind, the complaints have been embarrassing, and the company says it erred when it tried to prevent its employee from speaking about her treatment. Although there is a lot of work to be done, it’s clear that DeepMind needs to confront a culture of secrecy that has led to some employees suppressing grievances rather than working quickly to solve them.
Some employees will behave badly no matter how much workplace training they receive. In the United States and the United Kingdom, almost a third of employees have experienced a complaint. (2) Resolving complaints is where a firm shows it has a handle on the problem. DeepMind has fallen short in this area.
Her manager and other DeepMind colleagues threatened to take disciplinary action if she voiced her complaint to them. The company responded to her allegations after sending her notes for several months during which time the person she reported was promoted and received a company award.
Despite its failure to communicate better throughout the grievance process, DeepMind said a number of factors, including the Covid pandemic and the availability of the parties involved, contributed to delays.
The fact that a company with such high ideals, such as DeepMind, would have trouble recognizing when harassment or bullying takes place within its walls, and that it would suppress discussion once the problems surfaced, is discouraging, but perhaps not surprising.