Google Responded to Workplace Complaints With Counseling

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in her words

Former and current Google employees said that H.R. would respond to their workplace complaints by referring them to counseling programs instead of addressing the broader issues.

Credit...Franziska Barczyk

Published July 28, 2021Updated July 29, 2021, 8:20 a.m. ET

— Emi Nietfeld, a former Google employee


In late 2018, Chelsey Glasson, a researcher at Google who had worked there for four years, moved to a new team. She was pregnant at the time and said she immediately felt she was being discriminated against. Her new boss suggested that her forthcoming maternity leave might “rock the boat,” and she was effectively stripped of her management responsibilities.

When she filed a complaint with human resources, she was offered 10 free sessions with a mental health counselor who was contracted by Google and available on campus.

At the time, she thought, “What a great resource, of course I’m going to take advantage of this.”

More than a year later, when Ms. Glasson filed a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against Google, her counselor told Ms. Glasson that she was “really nervous and uncomfortable” seeing her after Google had asked for access to records of their sessions. “She was concerned that affiliating with me would compromise her contract with Google,” Ms. Glasson said.

“That was an incredibly low, deflating moment in my experience,” she said. That the counselor suggested ending their sessions as soon as Ms. Glasson had filed a lawsuit sounds like “client abandonment,” said Kristi Lee, associate professor for Seattle University’s counseling program, which is potentially a violation of a formal ethical code for counselors. Ms. Glasson’s counselor did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ms. Glasson said that already Google has been using those subpoenaed records to suggest that she was distressed for personal reasons, not because of a potentially toxic work environment or discrimination. She said she had been “asked very intimate questions” about her mental health and why she sought treatment in the first place.

In interviews with The Times, six former and current Google employees recalled that when they spoke up against workplace misconduct, they, too, were offered free short-term counseling — called the Employee Assistance Program (E.A.P.) — or medical leave. This pattern was originally reported by NBC News in March, which cited over a dozen current and former employees.

A Google executive, who asked not to be identified because he is not permitted to speak to reporters, said that when employees report difficulties at work with a colleague, Google’s human resources officers are instructed to remind those employees that the company offers up to 20 therapy sessions a year. (Google recently expanded the benefit to 25 sessions.)

Of course, offering counseling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In 2018, after a shooting at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., Google — YouTube’s parent company — offered employees short-term counseling to help deal with the trauma.

Nor is this kind of counseling unique to Google. Large companies in lots of industries, including finance and logistics, offer something similar.

But counseling can become problematic when it’s used as a stopgap or a quick fix to resolve tense workplace situations that might not legally be considered harassment or bullying but that are nonetheless unacceptable, said Erica Scott, a human resources expert.

Tolerating bad managers while directing employees to a counseling program is a “shocking” way to “shield the employer from accountability,” she said. “These are employee matters that are the employer’s obligation to deal with, not a third party.”

Some Google staff members who raised concerns said that while medical leave and counseling were helpful resources, an internal investigation into their complaints either didn’t take place, or ended up dragging on for months.

“We think that offering free third-party counseling and support that employees can choose to use if they want is the right thing for an employer to do to support people, and they’ve been extremely beneficial for many employees,” Shannon Newberry, a Google spokeswoman, said in an email. “Our Employee Assistance Program would never be offered in place of an investigation,” she added, pointing to companywide changes put in effect last year to how complaints are investigated. The company, which has more than 140,000 employees, also added that 90 percent of Google survey respondents who had used counseling services in 2020 were satisfied or highly satisfied with the service.

In most cases, when a company steers an employee to counseling, that person would be asked to share their medical and mental health history with the counselor, not unlike seeing a new doctor. But that may put them in a situation in which sensitive information about their past is surfaced within a workplace context or on the office campus, said Ramit Mizrahi, founder of Mizrahi Law.

Ann Hull, an employment lawyer, said the misuse of short-term counseling started becoming more common across industries in the past five years or so. She expressed concern around how much the counselors — who are often contractors working with multiple companies — would protect an employee’s privacy.

And if an employee goes on to sue the company for emotional damages, which can yield more compensation than suing only for economic losses, employers may be able to leverage those private records, Ms. Mizrahi said, as Google has done in Ms. Glasson’s case. The more recent the therapy or counseling, the more likely it is that the notes can be used.

“If a potential client called me and said: ‘I’m being harassed at work, I feel really stressed and anxious. Do you think I should use my company’s E.A.P.?’” Ms. Mizrahi said, “I would advise them against it.”

In the summer of 2018, Emi Nietfeld, then a Google employee, filed a sexual harassment complaint with human resources against her direct supervisor. For months, he had been making inappropriate comments about her, she wrote in a Guest Essay for The Times and touching her in ways that made her uncomfortable.

The investigation lasted almost three months. During this time, Ms. Nietfeld was still sitting next to her harasser and having one-on-one meetings with him. She felt on edge, restless, often unable to sleep. Whenever she asked for a timeline on the investigation, Google offered her the same three options: free counseling, work from home or medical leave. “It made me feel like the problem was me,” she said.

In her diary from that time, which she shared with The Times, she wrote: “I hated the way the company treated me like I was sick.”

At that time, Google had contracted Concern Health to provide the counseling services, and it has since switched to Lyra Health. In Lyra’s privacy agreement, which Google employees shared with The Times, the company states that it would not share information with Google without a client’s permission unless “required to do so by a court order or other legal requirement.” It’s unclear what “other legal requirement” means in this context, but therapists and counselors are sometimes required by law to share private information without the patient’s consent, for example if the patient poses a credible threat to others or discloses that a child is being abused. Lyra Health, which provides counseling services at other companies, including eBay, Facebook and Starbucks, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mental health counseling in the workplace has been around for a while: it can be traced back to the late 1930s when it was primarily used to help companies identify alcoholic employees whose productivity was dipping, later expanding to counseling in the 1940s. It is usually separate to mental health therapy that would be available through health insurance. Both forms of counseling and therapy are, however, expected to adhere to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, a federal law that ensures a patient’s confidentiality.

Ms. Nietfeld was already seeing an external therapist but, after filing the sexual harassment complaint, she considered making an appointment with an on-site counselor, believing they might better understand Google’s “very specific culture.” She was told it would be a three- to four-month wait before a counselor would be available, an indication of how widely used the service is. In the end, she didn’t use the counseling services during the investigation. Later, when human resources substantiated her claims, she was offered counseling again but said that she was still expected to sit next to her harasser.

“Alphabet seems to view E.A.P. as the go-to any time someone has an issue at work. They seem to suggest E.A.P. before an investigation begins, during the H.R. process and even after an outcome,” Chris Schmidt, spokesman for the Alphabet Workers Union, said in an email. “But it’s not a carefully considered option: It’s a default fallback whenever someone mentions any emotion, without any real consideration of whether it will actually help the person affected,” he said. “They’re effectively weaponizing mental health services.”

Ms. Glasson — whose lawsuit against Google will go to trial in December — said that, as a manager, she was instructed to encourage a distressed employee to use the counseling services. She received an email template with mental health options to forward on to her direct report, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times.

Ms. Glasson said that when she later found herself on the receiving end of discrimination from her director, she received a similar email from human resources, this time encouraging her to use the counseling services. But human resources didn’t investigate her claims, as claimed in her court filing.

“When you go to H.R. to seek help and you’re told, ‘Well have you considered counseling?’ that ultimately is communicating that you’re the problem,” she said.

“It’s meant to stop you in your tracks and silence you — it certainly made me stop and pause,”she added.

The Alphabet Workers Union this month published an online petition — related to new allegations from a Google worker who said that she was raped by a co-worker in May and then put on medical leave — urging the company to “cease the insidious process of pushing workers into E.A.P. therapy when they face harassment or other workplace abuses.”

Another Google employee, who asked to remain anonymous because she still works at the company, recalled that when she complained about a racist and toxic manager, she was told that perhaps she needed resilience training. She was also offered the same options: counseling or paid medical leave. She chose the latter. A former Google employee based in London said she was also offered counseling when she came forward with sexual assault claims.

When Timnit Gebru, a former co-leader of Google’s Ethical A.I. team, raised concerns about bias in the technology giant’s artificial intelligence, she was also offered “resources on mindfulness,” she said in an email. She declined the offer, telling human resources that “no amount of mindfulness fixes a hostile work environment.”

“One of my first questions when I have new clients is, ‘Have you seen a therapist in the prior years?’” Ms. Mizrahi said. If someone had seen a therapist a long time ago for reasons unrelated to the current case and was otherwise mentally healthy until their work environment became challenging, lawyers can argue that those previous records are irrelevant and should not be handed over to the company’s lawyers in litigation.

But when there are records of contemporaneous treatment, it becomes much harder to argue that they are irrelevant to the case at hand. (Of course, in some cases, that evidence might actually end up bolstering an employee’s case.)

When a counselor or therapist receives a subpoena, they can move to have that quashed or they may seek to turn over the “minimal amount of information possible,” said Dr. Lee, of Seattle University. However, when it comes to subpoenaing an E.A.P. counselor, “I could see how there could be a potential conflict of interest,” she added.

Where counselors are located might also suggest a breach of independence, said Ms. Hull, an employment attorney. “I get really suspicious of E.A.P. counselors who are in the same building as human resources, sometimes in the same suite as human resources,” she added.

She recounted that one of her clients, not affiliated with Google, told an employer-provided counselor that she was considering hiring an attorney with complaints about her work environment. The next day, according to Ms. Hull, human resources pulled the employee aside to ask her why she was looking to hire a lawyer — a fact that she hadn’t disclosed to anyone except her counselor.

In many cases, when plaintiffs realize that their counseling and medical records might be made public in emotional distress cases, they decide to either settle or drop their claims, Ms Mizrahi said.

Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed reporting.

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