Loretta Lee, a software engineer who worked at Google for seven years before being fired in February 2016, is suing Google for sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination she says she experienced at the company. Lee says in her lawsuit that the company’s “bro-culture” led to continuous harassment and that Google did nothing to intervene.
Lee’s lawsuit follows more than six months of Google grappling with the fallout from a memo written by a former employee, James Damore, in which he argued that women were biologically less fit for careers in tech than men. Damore’s memo, which was published by Gizmodo in August, received both support and condemnation from other Google employees and spurred internal debate about sexism, racism, and diversity within the company.
Throughout her time at Google, Lee was routinely sexually harassed, according to her lawsuit. She says her male coworkers spiked her drinks with alcohol and shot nerf guns at her regularly, and she says one male coworker messaged her to ask for a “horizontal hug.” At a holiday party, Lee’s lawsuit says, a male coworker slapped her across the face while he was intoxicated.
In one particularly alarming incident detailed in Lee’s lawsuit, she says she found a male coworker hiding under her desk when she returned after a short break. He refused to say what he was doing, the lawsuit says. “The incident with the co-worker under her desk unnerved her. Plaintiff [Lee] had never spoken to that co-worker before. She was frightened by his comment and believed he may have installed some type of camera or similar device under her desk,” the lawsuit says.
Google’s human resources department pressured Lee during a series of meetings to make a formal complaint about the incident, she says. But she was frightened that a complaint would only generate retaliation from her coworkers, she says—and video had emerged of the incident, her lawsuit states, so she didn’t think that she should be required to make a complaint. When she refused, HR cited her for “failing to cooperate,” her lawsuit states. Lee says she finally relented and made a complaint, which Google then failed to investigate, the lawsuit states.
Lee’s male coworkers retaliated against her after the complaint, her lawsuit says. They refused to approve her code and stalled her projects, she says, making it more difficult for her to succeed at work.
“Not only did Google fail to prevent severe and pervasive sexual harassment in Plaintiff’s workplace, but the repeated and awkward meetings that Human Resources forced Plaintiff to attend led her group to retaliate against her in the very way she feared,” the lawsuit states. “Google’s failure to take appropriate remedial action is consistent with its pattern and practice of ignoring sexual harassment in the workplace, making no significant efforts to take corrective action, and punishing the victim.”
Lee received positive performance reviews throughout her career at Google and placed highly in two internal hackathons, the lawsuit states. However, when she was terminated in February 2016, she says, she was told she was being fired for poor performance.
Shortly before being fired, Lee was in a car accident and requested medical leave—but Google didn’t accommodate her requests, her lawsuit says.
“We have strong policies against harassment in the workplace and review every complaint we receive. We take action when we find violations—including termination of employment,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. Google disputes Lee’s allegations about her coworkers’ behavior and about how HR handled the case, the spokesperson added, noting that Google promptly investigates and responds to allegations of workplace misconduct.
The allegations in Lee’s lawsuit are reminiscent of those raised last year by Susan Fowler, an engineer who blew the whistle about systemic sexual harassment at Uber. Fowler, like Lee, received sexually suggestive messages from her coworkers and experienced retaliation from HR after she made the problem known.
Damore sued Google last month for firing him, alleging that the company routinely discriminated against conservative white men. Since his termination last August, Google employees who advocate for diversity at the company say that Damore’s supporters have weaponized the company’s HR department, filing spurious complaints that claim diversity activists are discriminating against white men.
Tim Chevalier, a former Google engineer, sued the company this month for discrimination, harassment, and wrongful termination after he was fired for internal message board posts that advocated diversity at the company.
“An important part of our culture is lively debate. But like any workplace, that doesn’t mean anything goes. All employees acknowledge our code of conduct and other workplace policies, under which promoting harmful stereotypes based on race or gender is prohibited,” a Google spokesperson said in response to Chevalier’s lawsuit.
Googlers have also had screenshots of their internal conversations leaked to alt-right websites, according to Wired. In the immediate aftermath of Damore’s memo, Google CEO Sundar Pichai planned to hold a town hall meeting to address the situation. However, the town hall was canceled after leaks to alt-right sites led employees to fear for their safety. The town hall was never rescheduled, sources tell Gizmodo, although the threats that led to its cancellation seemed to compound the need for Google management to address the situation.
Google’s response to its cultural conflict stands in stark contrast to Uber’s reaction to its own sexual harassment crisis last year. After Fowler’s blog post went viral, Uber hired former US attorney general Eric Holder to lead an investigation into its workplace culture and retained the law firm Perkins Coie to investigate 215 complaints of sexual harassment. Based on Perkins Coie’s findings, Uber fired more than 20 employees. Holder’s investigation found that Uber did not have consistent procedures in place for responding to harassment, and made sweeping recommendations for how Uber could improve its culture.
Google, by comparison, seems to have done relatively little to address the recent swell in employee complaints of harassment and discrimination. The company does have procedures in place to address complaints of sexual harassment and assault—in 2015, Google instated a program called Respect@ to educate its employees about acceptable workplace behavior and collect reports of behavior that crosses lines. Employees can submit anonymous reports through an internal site, and Google reports the number, type, and outcome of complaints to its employees through an annual Internal Investigation Report. Google declined to share recent data from its Internal Investigation Report with Gizmodo.
Updated 3/1 at 7:00pm with additional comment with Google, including the company’s dispute of Lee’s claims and information about its Respect@ program.