DeepMind was accused of mishandling sexual misconduct and harassment allegations by its former employee. Raising concern on how the Google acquired company addresses such grievances.
According to FinancialTimes, Julia, the name was changed to protect her identity claimed a senior researcher at the London-based group in December 2019 sexually assaulted her twice, threatened suicide, and alluded to previous instances of rape, among other concerning behavior.
Julia said, “allegations were investigated thoroughly, and the individual who was investigated for misconduct was dismissed without any severance payments”.
DeepMind is a reputed AI company with a workforce of more than 1000 people, including Julia. She shared the letter sent to her former colleagues with the media. It reflected she was not happy with the way grievances such as hers are handled at DeepMind. There were extended delays in workplace investigations and insufficient safeguarding of sexual assault victims.
Julia and two other former DeepMind employees claim the company gives priority in protecting its reputation and top talent over the safety of potential victims.
The company said it “expects everyone — regardless of their role or seniority — to behave in a way that lives up to our values”.
Julia mentioned a series of traumatic encounters with a senior researcher over several months in 2019. From being repeatedly propositioned and sexually assaulted at her home and outdoors after an event.
On August 18, 2019, she received a six-page confessional document by the researcher, written in the third person via email. The document stated suicidal tendencies, allusions to raping unconscious women, and sex addiction indicated by reference to a string of affairs with sex workers during work hours, with colleagues on and off DeepMind premises.
She sent another document on September 19 2019 which included graphic and degrading sexual depictions of her. She has shared all the copies with the media between August 2019 and April 2021 with DeepMind’s human resources and grievance-handling teams that handled Julia’s complaints, as well as correspondence with the senior researcher.
Julia in her email said, “According to your own findings, I was subjected to sexual harassment, assault, and abuse . . . I will never be the same person. I have spent almost the entire last year fearing for my safety. There is absolutely . . . no reason why the investigation was so dysfunctional.”
Julia’s sexual assault complaints were not addressed initially but were resolved seven months after the complaint was filed in July 2020. The researcher was not dismissed until September 2020.
The alleged perpetrator moved freely without any restriction and also received a company award during the investigation period. He also continued to contact Julia while her grievance was ongoing.
DeepMind made it clear it gives priority to “employees’ safety and wellbeing at the core of any actions we take in an investigation like this. Though the process may have been difficult, it did check during the process to ensure they were safe and felt safe”. Attributed the Covid-19 pandemic to delays among other factors.
The letter from Julia also contains references to several anonymous victims of mishandled cases. This includes two others of sexual harassment and two of bullying, involving different perpetrators, highlighting “a number of common issues in how grievances are handled”.
According to Matt Whaley, a regional officer at Unite the Union in London, “They all have a similar trend in that someone abuses trust, it’s reported, and the employee . . . is left with the feeling that it isn’t handled in the right way.”
DeepMind further added, “Any incident of sexual assault or harassment is abhorrent and it’s unacceptable that anyone at DeepMind or in the world should experience it.”
Earlier in 2019, DeepMind’s co-founder Mustafa Suleyman left the company following an independent investigation into bullying and harassment accusations against him, unrelated to Julia. He has publicly apologized for his behavior.
DeepMind has widely faced criticism for its HR policy in recent years, it was also fined a $310mn settlement in 2020 after a group of shareholders accused the leadership team of mishandling employee complaints.