The Industry

The Google X Executive Accused of Sexual Harassment Still Works There, Employees Say

In a memo to staff, the moonshot factory’s head said, “We do what’s right based on the information we have.”

The Googleplex.
The Googleplex.
Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Last week, Google parent company Alphabet was rocked by a detailed report in the New York Times about several high-level male executives who either remained at the company or received hefty golden parachutes after accusations of sexual harassment or assault were leveled against them. The biggest name (and focus of the story) was Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, who reportedly received a $90 million exit package even after Google concluded that a sexual assault claim against him (for coercing an employee to perform oral sex in a hotel room in 2013) was credible. This has ignited an uproar within Google, the Times further reported, with employees criticizing what they see as a culture of impunity for executives.

One of the incidents that has roiled the company took place within a rarefied corner of Alphabet: X, the experimental “moonshot factory” charged with creating new, futuristic lines of business. The aftermath of the Times report has been particularly uncomfortable at X because one of the accused executives, Richard DeVaul, is still employed there, two sources within Alphabet told Slate. One of them said DeVaul showed up to work on Friday, after the Times investigation had been published. Google did not respond to a request for comment, including on whether DeVaul remains with the company.

As the Times reported, DeVaul, whose title is “director of rapid evaluation and mad science,” told a young female job candidate during a 2013 interview that he was in a polyamorous relationship. Later, when he saw the woman at Burning Man while she was still waiting to hear back about the job, DeVaul asked her if she would take off her shirt for a back massage. When the woman, Star Simpson, reported the incident to Google human resources two years later, an official at X told her, per the Times, that “her account was ‘more likely than not’ true and that ‘appropriate action’ was taken.” Simpson says she was asked by officials at Google not to speak about the incident again. In a statement to the Times, DeVaul apologized for his “error of judgment.”

In response to the investigation, Astro Teller, the head of X, wrote an email to employees within the division on Friday. “It probably feels hard to trust me and X right now, but I want to reassure you that we do take these issues very seriously, we investigate every allegation we receive, and we do what’s right based on the information we have,” Teller wrote. “I don’t have a silver bullet, but I am committed to making X the best possible place to work. That includes holding people who behave badly accountable and keeping those who report bad behavior safe.”

The note from Teller, which Slate obtained and confirmed with two sources at Alphabet, came a day after Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Eileen Naughton, the company’s vice president of people operations, said Google’s practices toward sexual harassment in the workplace had evolved in recent years. Pichai and Naughton revealed in an email to Google employees on Thursday that the company had fired 48 people, 13 of whom were senior managers, for sexual harassment over the last two years—and that none of them received exit packages. It’s not clear how many claims of sexual harassment were investigated, however, nor how many claims were found credible and led to disciplinary action short of dismissal.

A semi-secret research and development lab, X was started (as Google X) in 2010 by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The idea was to incubate projects that would solve long-term problems but had no near-term potential for profitability. X is where Google Glass was born and where Google’s self-driving car division, now called Waymo, was started before it was spun out as a separate company in 2016. X is also home to Loon, a subsidiary working to build giant balloons that beam internet connectivity from the sky, as well as Malta, which aims to store electricity in tanks of molten salt.

There is a history of interoffice romance at Google and X that goes all the way up to the C-suite. Brin, who hangs around X regularly, had a very public affair-turned-relationship with the former marketing manager of Google Glass, according to a 2014 Vanity Fair story. The Times also reported last week that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once “retained a mistress to work as a company consultant.” And according to the Times, David Drummond, Alphabet’s chief legal officer, had an extramarital relationship with an employee in his department beginning in 2004, which they eventually disclosed to the company. That employee, who had a child with Drummond, was transferred to the sales division and later left Google, while his career at the company “flourished.”

“There’s an increasing sense that Larry and Sergey may be the problem,” said one source within X, who is not authorized to speak with the press and requested anonymity, speaking to a culture of impunity for men who initiate interoffice relationships with women working under them. “I don’t think they’re abusers, but they’ve sheltered them. They clearly think there’s some amount of value they’re getting out of these men that outweighs the women they’re preying on.” In response to the Times’ reporting, Alphabet told the paper it takes harassment seriously and that “We investigate and take action, including termination. In recent years, we’ve taken a particularly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority. We’re working hard to keep improving how we handle this type of behavior.”

Still, last week’s news has inflamed mistrust among some X employees over management’s attitude toward sexual harassment. A poster that contained an image of DeVaul was torn off the wall at X after the Times investigation came out, multiple sources at the company told Slate.

Here’s the full letter Teller sent to employees:

Today was a tough day. The New York Times story was really upsetting for me, and I know it was for many of you too. Thank you to everyone who reached out to me to tell me how you feel and share your reactions. I’m listening and I’ll keep on listening as we work to make X better.

It probably feels hard to trust me and X right now, but I want to reassure you that we do take these issues very seriously, we investigate every allegation we receive, and we do what’s right based on the information we have.

The “Me Too” movement has shown us the power of breaking silence. If you experience or see inappropriate behavior, please come forward. Please don’t hold it secret and carry that additional burden. Coming forward can be difficult, but it is also an act of bravery. Please know you are safe if you speak up.

We’re all working at X because we want to make the world a radically better place. But if you don’t feel safe here — and that includes feeling safe about speaking up — nothing else matters. I want X to be a place where we take care of each other and support each other. Where we can all stand up for what’s right without fear.

I want to know about things that are broken here. I don’t have a silver bullet, but I am committed to making X the best possible place to work. That includes holding people who behave badly accountable and keeping those who report bad behavior safe.

Astro

If you have further information and would like to speak confidentially with this reporter, email april.glaser@slate.com.