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Google, which says it doesn’t underpay women, may not have to reveal as much as the U.S. government seeks

A federal judge has limited the information the Labor Department can request as part of its investigation.

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Eileen Naughton, Google’s VP for People Operations
Cindy Ord / Getty

A federal court in California moved on Friday to spare Google from turning over a trove of information about its employees to the U.S. government as the feds continue to investigate whether the tech giant underpays its female workers.

Since January, Google has resisted a demand by the Department of Labor that it share data — including the complete salary history and contact information for more than 21,000 employees — as part of a probe into potential “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce,” the government previously has argued.

Google has repeatedly rejected those allegations, while arguing in court that the Labor Department’s requests for data are onerous and would jeopardize the privacy of Google’s employees. Administrative Law Judge Steven Berlin on Friday agreed; in his ruling, he sought to impose limits on the government’s request — a recommendation that will become final unless federal lawyers seek an appeal.

Under the proposed order, Google must still provide the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, or OFCCP, with more data related to employees’ demographic information. That includes name, gender and ethnicity, as well as their salary, as of September 2014. It’s the second so-called “snapshot” of Google’s workforce sought by the agency, which obtained similar information about the tech giant’s employees from September 2015.

But Google has been spared from the government’s other demands — including a request that it submit contact information for all 21,000 of its employees so that the Labor Department can more fully investigate claims of unequal pay.

Citing fears about hacking — and recent cyber attacks on the U.S. government — the court instead recommended the agency seek and obtain from Google the telephone numbers and email addresses from up to 5,000 of its workers, provided the company already has that data in its possession. Google has 30 days from the moment the order becomes final to share that information. Federal investigators may then seek a second round of contact information from 3,000 individuals for follow-up interviews.

Nor is Google required to provide salary history and job history for its employees dating back to their hiring. Doing so would exceed the Labor Department’s mandate, the court said, which is only able to investigate companies’ compliance with federal affirmative action rules during the time shortly before, and during, their service as government contractors — which, in Google’s case, began in 2007.

Federal investigators can try again, however, if they can “show that the request is reasonable, within its authority, relevant to the investigation, focused, and not unduly burdensome,” the judge found.

The favorable early ruling drew praise from Google on Sunday.

“Assuming the recommended decision becomes final, we’ll comply with the remainder of the order, and provide the much more limited data set of information the judge approved, including the contact information for a smaller sample of up to 8,000 employees,” said Eileen Naughton, the vice president for people operations at Google, in a blog post.

“While we’re pleased with Friday’s recommended decision, we remain committed to treating, and paying, people fairly and without bias with regard to factors like gender or race,” she continued. “We are proud of our practices and leadership in this area, and we look forward to working constructively with OFCCP, as we complete this review and in the future.”

A spokesman for the Department of Labor, meanwhile, did not immediately respond Sunday night to an email about its next step.

Still, the government’s probe is hardly over — and it comes at a time of heightened scrutiny in Silicon Valley over the way women are treated in the tech industry.

Charges of sexism hardly are new among the region’s investment and executive set, but misbehavior at top companies and venture-capital firms finally have triggered so much blowback that the offenders are losing their jobs — and their bosses have faced intense criticism. At Google, meanwhile, even its own employees have warred publicly as to whether women are paid the same as men.

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