Google’s online services team grapples with a mental health crisis
Before leaving in April 2021, Chewy Shaw informed his colleagues at Google that his interactions with managers left him depressed and suicidal. To avoid a mental health crisis, Shaw decided to leave the toxic work culture behind.
“I no longer feel psychological safety on this team,” wrote Shaw, who is black and had accused its leaders of racism. “I no longer have a manager who is focused on treating me in a ‘Googley’ way,” he added. “And so, with a lot of tears, I’m now looking for a Googley manager at the company who will take me on.”
Shaw was part of the Borg SRE team that makes sure Google sites like YouTube and Gmail are working properly. While he acknowledges that the work is difficult and stressful, he says managers have made it even harder to keep working. He accuses the team leader, Pierre Aubert, of having built a workplace plagued by discontent and where threats of dismissal were the norm. Several of his colleagues admit to taking time off to preserve their mental health.
While Shaw credits the company’s previous culture for hiring and promoting a diverse pool of resources, he mentions that Pierre Aubert’s promotion in December 2019 was a game-changer. What was once an egalitarian space quickly became toxic and unwelcoming. Shaw mentions that the situation got worse in 2020, and it seemed like Aubert was using the pandemic as an excuse to fire people he didn’t like.
In November, a “team temperature” survey found that all three Borg sub-teams were below the overall average of 7.5. Out of a maximum score of 10, Borg’s sub-teams scored 5.07, 6.5, and 6.73 respectively.
Another employee, Shari McHenry, fell victim to Aubert’s hostility. At the time, she was responsible for budgeting and making sure there were enough machines to run each department. Aubert reportedly handed over most of his responsibilities to a newly hired manager. MchHenry mentions that Aubert was overheard saying, “Can’t Shari retire? She should have enough money,” to the team. Nearing 60, McHenry mentioned that she has no such plans for the immediate future.
According to documents viewed by Bloomberg, Shaw and McHenry filed complaints with HR in the fall of 2020. But it appears no concrete action has been taken. Shaw then helped create the Alphabet Workers Union, which tries to promote social and economic justice in the workplace.
In an email to Bloomberg, a Google spokesperson said, “At Google, creating a respectful, safe and inclusive workplace is our top priority. We recognize that we will not always do things right, and there will be situations where disagreements may arise. Although we cannot speak to individual circumstances, we thoroughly investigate employee concerns and take appropriate action when our policies are violated. We also have programs and resources in place to support employees and managers with coaching, culture building, career development, conflict resolution, and more.
There has been growing dissatisfaction at Google. Many senior executives have been accused of misconduct and discrimination.
In 2017, a manifesto by engineer James Damore dismissed women’s endeavors in tech as considerably less capable than men. What was troubling was that a large minority of employees agreed with his point of view. Since then, Google has mostly tried to tone down its open tradition. Guidelines and directives were put in place for tracking internal messages and instructions were given via email.
It was revealed in 2018 that some of Google’s most senior executives received generous severance packages despite a sexual harassment investigation. Googlers staged a strike to protest company policies after the New York Times exposure. Two employees, who helped organize the walkouts, later reported that they faced workplace retaliation and eventually left Google.
The search giant has also made headlines for retaliating against employees who report harassment. In a 2019 internal document obtained by Recode, many employees attest to being demoted, ostracized or assigned to less desirable projects for speaking out.
In January 2021, an internal survey revealed that only 49% of the Borg team had a favorable view of the company, Bloomberg reported.
Global mental health crisis
One of the most searched terms in 2021 was “how to maintain sanity”. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, people were unable to use their normal means of coping —traveling, socializing and having regular hours.
Experts say they have seen an increase in demand for psychiatric services over the past decade. Despite these difficult times, “how to heal”, “how to stay strong”, “how to make a comeback”, “how to be resilient” and “how to have hope” were among the top searches of 2021.
Trending research points to a bright future, but we can’t ignore the fact that a bigger mental health crisis is looming. Unless appropriate action is taken, this may lead to another disaster of global proportions.