Uber’s sexism row – What lessons can be learnt? [OPINION]

Sasha Hanau | 8th March 2017

Uber is well known to most as one of the most successful and disruptive companies to emerge this decade. With millions of users, billions granted in funding and operations in 500+ locations – Uber is undeniably a staggering success. Despite its business prowess however, Uber is facing a major reputation, PR and HR crisis.

In the last few months Uber has been under fire for everything from stealing intellectual property relating to driverless cars from Google’s Alphabet, to unfair treatment of its drivers. Most shockingly though – there have been several first-hand reports of sexism and sexual harassment. According to reports, this seems to be quite widespread at its San Fran HQ.

Susan’s Story

Initiated originally by a blog published by ex-employee Susan Fowler Rigetti, the case has escalated with several other employees backing her viewpoint. In her blog, Susan gives a frank account of her experiences in her new team:

“On my first official day on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat… He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with.”

Her account goes on to describe the blatant failings on HR’s part (along with other senior members of staff) to deal with the issue appropriately. Had they behaved differently I wonder if some of this publicity could have been avoided?

“When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management … it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to…He was a ‘high performer’ and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him. I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that.”

 Understandably Susan wasn’t impressed with what she heard from the internal teams responsible for maintaining and enforcing correct company culture and basic appropriateness/professionalism:

 “It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being ‘his first offense’, and it certainly wasn’t his last… The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.”

Amy’ Story

The hard-hitting and frankly shocking expose led to more disgruntled employees coming forward. In another blog titled ‘I am an Uber survivor’, ‘Amy’ tells her story of abuse. She writes:

“Chauvinistic, racist and homophobic attitudes were far too normal at Uber. They had private chats where guys wrote sexual fantasy stories about female colleagues and supervisors where they performed all sorts of demeaning acts on the women.”

 Sadly, she also fell fowl of HR’s dismissive approach to her complaints…

 “Travis [Uber’s CEO] is well known to protect high performing team leaders no matter how abusive they are towards their employees. The HR team was known to be deftly afraid of Travis’s tendency to blame and ridicule the women and yell at HR whenever they went in with complaints of abuse… The animosity towards me got worse and in my performance reviews, it was noted that ‘I was not a team player, not creative, directionless’.”

In a bid to turn the situation around (and protect the company’s share values), Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an investigation alongside board member Arianna Huffington, new Head of HR Liane Hornsey, and partners of law firm Covington & Burling. Despite claiming he’d not heard the complaints before, Kalanick also then issued a statement to his team:

“What is driving me through all this is a determination that we take what’s happened as an opportunity to heal wounds of the past and set a new standard for justice in the workplace… It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice.”

No offer of an apology but an open promise to make changes. People are keen to know if Kalanick has really taken the recent feedback on board or if he’s doing the bare minimum he needs to to regain customers’ faith? Only time can tell but what’s most interesting is looking at how the problem could get so bad in the first place. What factors led to such a horrific mess?

HR is not being taken seriously

The issue appears to be one that many fast-growing companies face – HR is considered to be largely there to recruit new talent, retain ‘high performers’ (no matter of their attitude or behaviour) and deal with operational issues day to day. In demanding start-up environments particularly, human resources can be viewed as the brake that slows down progress.

The distinct lack of value placed on strategic HR recruits in the early days at Uber reflects this view. Uber didn’t recruit an HR professional until 2014 when it already employed more than 500 people! And despite having employed a Head of HR who sat in on Exec Board meetings, somehow (according to Kalanick at least) none of the negative feedback was being passed upwards.

With a lot of movement reported in their own HR dept. and the recent hire of a new Head of HR, a gap in such a significant role for many months cannot have helped matters. Those in the HR teams at the time may indeed have been pretty frustrated and disengaged themselves which resulted in a large exodus. Reports suggest that at the start of last year only 10 HR reps existed within Uber and while this is now said to be 35+ and rising steeply under new leadership, the lack of personnel resource for its 11,000 employees surely hasn’t helped curb the problems Uber faces.

HR’s role was not to set or embed culture, or indeed to deal effectively with grievances – it was there to hire people as fast as possible and keep them performing. In positioning HR in this way, Kalanick opened himself up to much more serious problems than losing top talent – he’s exposed his company to huge PR and reputational nightmares which will have a long lasting impact on how the brand is perceived and ultimately how it is valued also.

In Bloomberg’s account of the story, they interviewed Magdalena Yesil, an investor in more than 30 technology companies including giant Salesforce:

“Of course, without HR at a time when you’re hiring very quickly, you don’t have anyone training new employees about what behavior is acceptable or not. A new company should have an experienced human resources manager by the time they have about 100 employees. At that point, they need someone who can oversee performance issues, compensation plans and management training.”

Fatally flawed feedback processes

A report conducted by Elephant in the Valley (a project that originated at Stanford University) asked 200+ women with 10+ years of experience of working in the Valley about their experiences in the workplace. It found that 39% of women harassed in the workplace did nothing about it because they thought it would negatively impact their career. This fear factor, instilled by their employers is what leads to such serious and public feedback later down the line.

Ultimately Uber’s feedback process was not working. When people did bravely provide feedback, they were threatened, ignored or made so uncomfortable that their only really option was to leave. In a company where feedback is not welcome when it is negative and where action is not taken when complaints are made, then you can understand people turning to social media to find a sympathetic and just ear.

It’s estimated by US attorneys that over 80% of companies working in the tech industry are using private arbitration. Arbitration is often seen to fall in favour of the ‘client’ aka the company not the employee and non-disclosure agreements are rife – protecting the company over the employee and dissuading public feedback.

Flawed, weak, or disconnected leadership

These claims are not the first to criticise Uber’s leader in relation to his views on women. Several past blunders have raised suspicion and mean that Kalanick’s leadership is under real scrutiny.

Audio footage of Kalanick’s first meeting with over 100 female engineers emerged recently. The meeting was the start of Kalanick’s investigation and revealed some genuine desire to change, although whether he has totally accepted the serious and wide-spread problems is for you to decide.  In the audio clip released to BuzzFeed, Kalanick is told sexism is systemic at Uber and encouraged to take responsibility for the problem rather than relying on his investigations team.

Amidst vows to take it seriously, Kalanick still slips up in the audio referring directly to the sexual harassment claims and Fowlers complain specifically as “the Susan situation” which appears less than sympathetic.  His use of language to some still implies that the allegations may or may not be true and this clearly frustrated some of the staff present with one telling Kalanick:

“We have the data, we have the anecdotes, we have it happening in our own backyard. When are we going to get together and say that there is a systemic problem here — and stop using hypotheticals.” The engineer goes on: “I think it starts with listening to your own people. And I think that over the past several years if we had already been listening to our people we would already believe this systemic problem was here.”

In amongst all these problems, the fatal blow for many had to be the dashcam video which was released shortly after these allegations surfaced where Kalanick can been seen having a heated, less than gracious row with one of his drivers over fares.

Responding to the video Kalanick said he needed to ‘grow up’ and explained he would be seeking ‘leadership help’. Yet I felt this did little for his image as leader of Uber. In tough times employees need strong, inspirational and fair leaders who they see as stable, reliable and consistent. Losing one’s temper, especially publicly, does nothing to reassure his already nervous and upset team.

Is this about Uber or is it a reflection of the wider reprehension that this level of chauvinism and sexism still exists?

It’s clear that the press has hit Uber hard with coverage of its sexism claims and understandably so – they have a new problem or law suit nearly every day or so it seems. Despite Uber’s major shortcomings, the Elephant in the Valley study showed 87% of women reported demeaning comments from male colleagues, 60% reported sexual harassment and more than half stated it was more than just once. 1 in 3 have felt afraid of their personal safety because of work related circumstances and most concerningly, 60% of those who reported sexual harassment were dissatisfied with the course of action. It is clear this problem is not limited to Uber.

How Uber chooses to tackle this debacle is likely to have a widespread impact on other tech giants who think they can still get away with such out-dated, disgraceful and systematic sexism. If nothing else the level of bad press it’s created will be a good deterrent for other leaders that hope that by ignoring problems in their own companies, they will simply go away. And finally, I hope for Uber’s 11,000 employees that Kalanick can turn things around once and for all, and keep firm on his bold promise that “anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired”.