In late July, a woman who worked in the Seattle/Kirkland branch of Google posted a memo titled “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why,” to an internal message board for expecting and new mothers. After the initial posting, it was also posted to other internal message boards within the organization and from there went viral. It has been viewed by over 10,000 employees, and it alleges that Google has discriminated and retaliated against the author of the memo for being pregnant.
In the memo the author describes how her manager made inappropriate comments about a member of her team. She made derogatory remarks indicating her team member was most likely pregnant again and she was, “overly emotional and difficult to work with when pregnant.” She discussed this individual’s likely pregnancy-related mental health struggles and how it’s difficult because, “you can’t touch employees after they disclose such things.” She felt her manager was encouraging her to “manage” this employee off her team.
She states that she reported her interactions with her manager to Human Resources and from there the retaliation began almost immediately. She claims that previously she had repeatedly received excellent performance reviews including from her current manager, but all that changed once she reported her manager to Human Resources. From that point she received, “months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming. The final blow was finding out my manager was sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers not on my PA, and actively interviewing candidates to replace me.”
The author of the memo, pregnant at the time, reported her manager’s ongoing retaliation to HR on several occasions and how it was impacting her health. HR acknowledged that they were aware of some of the activities and that such behavior was inappropriate but stated there was no evidence of retaliation and that a formal investigation consequently wasn’t warranted. The only support the employee claims she received was encouragement to take medical leave.
Due to the toxic environment, the stress of the situation, and the concern about the health impact to her baby, the author of the memo moved to managing another team within Google though the position had lesser responsibilities. While she had reservations about the decreased scope the role, she was desperate to leave the unhealthy work environment, and she was concerned that she wouldn’t find a role prior to or upon immediate return from maternity leave.
Once transferred, her new boss introduced her to the team as a manager via email, but she was told that she wouldn’t absorb the team until after returning from maternity leave due to concerns that her leave would “stress the team” and “rock the boat”, despite there being more than four months until the expected start of her leave. She alleges that her manager repeatedly instructed her not to take on any management tasks and that she was excluded from certain management communications and offsites.
In a conversation with her new boss, she describes how deflated she was by this retaliation and how she was treated by her old boss. Her new boss stated that she should let the situation go due to the seniority level and influence her old boss had. Based on later interactions between her new boss and old boss, she learned that they seemed to have a close relationship.
Shortly after joining the new team, she was diagnosed with a pregnancy-related condition that was life-threatening to both herself and her baby. She communicated to her team and to her superiors the need to take an earlier than expected leave as well as the need to restrict any travel in order to be close to a specific hospital. In a conversation with her new manager about her early leave as well as the need for bedrest, her boss indicated she had listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bedrest and that she herself was ordered bedrest during her own pregnancy but that she ignored the order and worked up until the day she gave birth. In this same meeting she was told she would not be guaranteed a management role after returning from leave, and she would support her in an interview for other roles at Google.
The author of the memo started to develop concerning symptoms regarding her pregnancy, and she informed her manager that most likely she would be starting her leave early. Her boss responded with an angry email indicating that she wasn’t meeting expectations of someone at her level nor meeting expectations as a manager. This was the first time any such feedback was shared. She subsequently filed a discrimination complaint with HR in which they indicated they would start an investigation.
Four months after the report of the discrimination, HR notified her that the investigation was complete and that they found no signs of discrimination. They stated that her manager simply had a done a poor job of communicating job expectations. While she was out on maternity leave, she was given a performance rating of “Needs Improvement” on her evaluation. This rating was based on approximately six weeks of work time in her new role. The author wrote, “I stood up for another on my team and doing so sent me down a path that destroyed my career trajectory at Google.”
In her memo she states, “I’m sharing this statement because I hope it informs needed change in how Google handles discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. This is a long read, but the details are important in understanding the often drawn-out, isolating, and painful experience of victims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Also, if anything similar has happened to you, know that you’re not alone.” Her memo ends with several quotes from her direct reports praising her performance.
Her claims have not yet been verified, and the author currently has declined to comment further on her allegations. Her memo can be found here.
Google responded to the worker's allegations, saying, "We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy. To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigate all allegations of retaliation."
This is not the first time Google has been in the headlines for discrimination complaints against women and minorities. In 2017, three former employees of Google filed a class action lawsuit alleging female employees were being paid less than their male counterparts. Also in 2017, a former employee sued Google for "discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and wrongful termination", alleging that the company fired him after he made several internal posts against racism and sexism. Just last week, news broke of a departing Google employee that posted an internal memo that alleges racist and insensitive behavior from some employees in the company.
Recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Between 1997 and 2011, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a 50% increase in the number of pregnancy discrimination charges filed demonstrating that pregnancy discrimination is quite common. The number of charges filed between 2012 and 2017 hasn't changed very much since then.
In order to avoid charges of pregnancy discrimination, HR professionals should ensure their employee handbook includes policies covering federal and state laws related to leaves of absences, including those that that address pregnancy. Engage in dialogue with pregnant employees regarding reasonable accommodations. Ensure that job descriptions are updated to reflect the duties, essential functions, and competencies of the job in order to make those interactive discussions easier. Regularly train managers and employees about their rights and responsibilities related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. Lastly, develop a procedure for investigating and responding to pregnancy discrimination complaints.
Additional ASE Resources
Handbook Development- ASE can assist you by reviewing and updating your current handbook to ensure compliance with state and federal laws related to leaves of absences, including pregnancy. Contact Michael Burns.
Sources: HR Dive 8/7/2019, Working Mother 8/6/2019, Forbes 10/30/2018