In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google had investigated the alleged bullying behavior of Mustafa Suleyman, the cofounder of DeepMind, an important Google subsidiary, and a leader in the field of AI.
After conversations with more than a dozen current and former employees, Insider has learned that this investigation came after years of internal complaints to human resources and executives about Suleyman’s behavior. There have also been confidential settlements between DeepMind and former employees who had worked under Suleyman and complained about his conduct.
These details and many others in this story have not previously been reported. Taken together, they raise questions about how Google, one of the world’s most powerful AI companies, treats alleged misbehavior by executives and whether it communicates openly enough with employees and the public about controversial and important issues.
In addition, Insider found that during his tenure at DeepMind, Suleyman was an executive who drove his team to great heights and, sometimes, great despair. “He had a habit of just flying off the handle out of nowhere,” one former employee said. “It felt like he wanted to humiliate you, like he was trying to catch you off your guard. He would just start laying into you, in front of your colleagues, without any warning.”
In one case, Suleyman sent a profanity-laden email to a Listserv of more than 100 employees complaining that the communications team “f—ed up” after disagreements over a blog post, one former employee said. “It was just to humiliate them,” this person added.
He used to say, ‘I crush people.’former DeepMind employee
Multiple people said Suleyman would sometimes scream at employees in group meetings and one-on-ones. He would also “gossip” in the office about firing certain people and would sometimes act on it, these people said.
People familiar with the matter believed Suleyman was aware of the effect this behavior had on employees. “He used to say, ‘I crush people,'” one said.
Two former employees recalled seeing colleagues crying after meetings with Suleyman. Others said he would often set “unrealistic expectations,” which would change on a whim. Suleyman would also sometimes ask employees to carry out tasks unrelated to their jobs or DeepMind’s work, two former employees said.
“He would ask us to do personal things for him,” one of these people said. “He said, ‘I need you to write a briefing for me on Russian history and politics.’ We knew it was absurd. We knew it was a waste of time. We had absolutely no work in Russia.”
Employees said Suleyman encouraged them to use private chat groups on Signal and Telegram for work conversations, some of which were set up to automatically delete messages after a set period. Employees were also on occasion asked to delete messages from their phones, a former employee said. They were also told to notify the group once they had done so.
“Mustafa was super paranoid about Google spying on him, so he didn’t want to use corporate apps, even though we were doing corporate work,” one former employee said.
The upshot of this secrecy was that Google and the rest of DeepMind were presumably sometimes in the dark about Suleyman’s behavior. Still, three people told Insider that multiple complaints about Suleyman were raised to HR, but seemingly no action was taken. One employee said they contacted Google’s internal bullying hotline but received no response.
In 2017, Suleyman’s Applied division — the part of the company tasked with finding real-world applications for DeepMind’s AI technology — was given its own HR department that reported into him and which remained separate from the rest of the company, three people said.
“You’d try to complain, and they would say, ‘It’s not a DeepMind issue anymore. It’s an Applied issue,'” one former employee said. “Neither Google nor DeepMind took any responsibility.”
At least two former employees of Suleyman’s negotiated financial settlements after complaining to the company about his behavior. Both raised allegations of bullying at some point during negotiations, and received settlements in excess of $150,000 each upon exiting the company, multiple people familiar with the situation said. These settlements were negotiated in 2016 and 2017, they added, and were unrelated to the later investigation into Suleyman’s conduct.
A DeepMind representative said, “Our records do not show settlements based on his behavior.” Insider was unable to confirm whether the payments were made in connection with the alleged harassment, either in whole or in part, or some other aspect of the employees’ complaints.
Everyone Insider spoke with acknowledged Suleyman’s behavior at DeepMind as intense, but some praised it or attributed it to the extreme working environment of an ambitious startup within Google. One former employee, who asked not to be identified, said they found it “exhilarating and empowering to be pushed.”
Jim Gao, a former DeepMind employee who led a team focused on energy and reported directly to Suleyman, defended the executive. “The challenges we tackled together were extraordinarily complex and ambitious,” Gao said. “I always found him to be a courageous and inspirational leader.”
Google and DeepMind told Insider in a joint statement that, as a result of the internal investigation, Suleyman “undertook professional development training to address areas of concern, which continues, and is not managing large teams.”
In a statement sent through his personal lawyers, Suleyman said: “In 2019 I accepted feedback that, as a co-founder at DeepMind, I drove people too hard and at times my management style was not constructive. I took this feedback seriously and agreed to take some time out and start working with a coach. These steps helped me reflect, grow and learn personally and professionally. I apologise unequivocally to those who were affected by my past behaviour.”
In early 2019, DeepMind hired an external lawyer to investigate allegations that the cofounder had bullied employees, and the company placed Suleyman on a leave of absence. (At the time a spokesperson said Suleyman was “taking time out right now after 10 hectic years.”) After the investigation, Suleyman was stripped of management responsibilities and placed on leave in July.
Then, in December 2019, Google announced a new job for Suleyman: VP of artificial-intelligence policy. More than a year later, the company told employees in a memo that Suleyman’s “management style fell short” of expected standards.
Suleyman is now only two steps removed from Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO. Suleyman sits on Google’s Advanced Technology Review Council, which is staffed by other Google executives, including two of the highest-ranking leaders at the company, Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker and AI boss Jeffrey Dean. The council has influence over much of Google and DeepMind’s work.
Three years ago, 20,000 employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s handling of sexual and other misconduct, and Google still struggles with the challenging task of addressing alleged workplace misbehavior.
Since taking the reins in 2015, Pichai has been vocal about better protecting employees from mistreatment and fixing what some deemed a permissive work environment under previous leadership.
But inside Google, Suleyman’s case is a particularly outrageous one to employees who believe that it’s another instance of the company’s seemingly uneven set of standards for executives.
Over the past six months, the company’s worst-kept secret has been the implosion of its ethical-AI division, spurred by the ousting of its two coleads, Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell.
Both women raised issues around the potential for Google’s technology to reproduce social biases, and both were subsequently removed from their roles at the company.
That brought the company under heavy scrutiny, particularly from the AI industry. Multiple employees have since left the company, citing its treatment of Gebru and Mitchell.
In Gebru’s case, Google demanded that she remove her name from what it deemed a controversial research paper. In response, she sent an email to a selection of coworkers accusing the company of “silencing marginalized voices.”
In the fallout, Gebru said she was fired, while Google has maintained that she resigned.
“The fact that Mustafa could harass and bully his teams and abuse his power for years, and it doesn’t get him fired,” one former employee said, “but Timnit sends an email they don’t like and gets cut off immediately? It’s a joke.”
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