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With #MeToo In Mind, Employers Balance Workers' Privacy With Transparent Probes


The CEO of Google goes before the House Judiciary Committee today, where he's expected to face tough questions about how the company collects data from users. Google's been under scrutiny for its lack of transparency, not just from lawmakers - from its own employees. Last month, the company had to change its sexual harassment policies after thousands of workers walked off the job. They want the company to be more open about how it handles internal investigations. But Google says it also needs to protect its employees' privacy. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Two years ago, Google forced top executive Andrew Rubin to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment. Employees were in the dark. They weren't aware of the company's findings against him or that he had received $90 million in severance in spite of it. After that and other incidents came to light in a recent New York Times story, Google employees around the world walked out, demanding reform.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Time is up. Time is up. Time is up. Time is up.

NOGUCHI: From the CEO on down, Google was forced to admit its mistakes. Jennifer Kaiser is a spokesperson for Google, which is an NPR sponsor.

JENNIFER KAISER: I think what's been really clear is that we haven't always gotten everything right.

NOGUCHI: Google is pledging greater transparency. For the first time, it will report data on sexual harassment and assault, including the number of claims broken down by business division. Kaiser says the annual investigations report will also tally the number of substantiated or partially substantiated claims.

KAISER: We're going to be looking at overall trends but also be really clear about the disciplinary actions that are taken for different kinds of investigations.

NOGUCHI: This can be trickier than it sounds. Companies have legal and privacy reasons to protect the identities of both the accuser and accused. Workplace claims often remain out of view because employers require workers to sign non-disclosure agreements when they settle cases. Some also require workers to use arbitration. But with the #MeToo movement, workers are demanding greater accountability. Some companies say they have found a way to strike that balance.

Marc Howze is senior vice president at farming equipment maker Deere & Company. He says tensions are unavoidable with a global 74,000-person workforce. Employees are encouraged to use the grievance system.

MARC HOWZE: The fact is, we like the fact that we have a lot of people submitting complaints because that lets us know we've got an environment where people feel comfortable raising issues, even if they're just potential issues.

NOGUCHI: Complaints are assigned numbers so workers can anonymously monitor progress of their case. Howze says Deere also publishes quarterly newsletters.

HOWZE: And what we do in there is we talk about some of the cases that have happened or issues that have come up that may be instructive to other employees, so people can read and say, see what happened.

NOGUCHI: Howze says company policy is to never reveal names, whether it's about sexual harassment or other problematic behavior. But that's not to say people don't find out.

HOWZE: If you are blatantly inappropriate, usually somebody saw it. And if there is a reckoning that happens as a result of that, you know, people will know.

NOGUCHI: Sometimes, transparency can go too far. Simone Grimes, for example, never intended for her case to go public. Grimes is a special adviser to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. She says, Melvin Watt, the head of the agency, sexually harassed then retaliated against her - charges he's denied. Grimes' anonymity was broken earlier this year when the inspector general on her case named her in a lawsuit.

SIMONE GRIMES: The first step that you expect from the organization is to protect the complainant. That did not happen in my case.

NOGUCHI: Grimes says the public scrutiny that followed came with costs and benefits. On the one hand, other women at the agency and elsewhere have reached out to her. On the other, she says she's faced more retaliation at work. And her exposure has become a cautionary tale to other harassment victims.

GRIMES: They remain afraid to talk about what happened. And what that creates is this notion that each incident is an isolated event.

NOGUCHI: Many experts say the most important thing is that workers feel safe coming forward. Betty Thompson is chief people officer at Booz Allen Hamilton. She says workers demand greater transparency when they don't trust their employer's process.

BETTY THOMPSON: I think you kind of start over when that happens. And you have to then start rebuilding the trust. And you probably do have to be a bit more transparent more often.

NOGUCHI: Winning back that trust, she says, means opening up. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "THREE-TWO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.