How Uber Is Responding to Allegations of Sexism and Toxic Culture

How Uber Is Responding to Allegations of Sexism and Toxic Culture

On Sunday, ex-Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler published a troubling account of what it was like to work for the company, alleging a pattern of sexual harassment, a toxic work environment, deceptive HR enforcement, and both management inaction and also retaliation against her for reporting incidents. The account has quickly gone viral and sent shockwaves across the tech sector, and it has even led at least some of the company’s customers to quit using the service. CEO Travis Kalanick responded very quickly to the scandal, immediately releasing a statement declaring that the work experiences Fowler detailed were “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in,” and that he had instructed the company’s chief HR officer “to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations.” The company then went even further and hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to run that investigation, and Uber board member Arianna Huffington is participating as well.

In the wake of Fowler’s letter, some of the ridesharing company’s investors have begun to voice concerns about the company having a culture problem. Venture capitalists Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, some of Uber’s earliest backers, published an open letter to the board and other investors on Thursday, saying they were “disappointed and frustrated” at Uber’s pattern of “responding to public exposure of bad behavior by holding an all-hands meeting, apologizing and vowing to change, only to quickly return to aggressive business as usual”:

[W]e feel we have hit a dead end in trying to influence the company quietly from the inside. If we believed it was too late for Uber to change, we would not be writing this, but as investors, it is now up to us to call out the inherent conflicts of interest in their current path.

We are disappointed to see that Uber has selected a team of insiders to investigate its destructive culture and make recommendations for change. To us, this decision is yet another example of Uber’s continued unwillingness to be open, transparent, and direct.

Noting that the Kapors are well known within the VC community as champions of diversity, CNNTech’s Sara Ashley O’Brien calls this letter “a play to get other investors to speak out,” but so far, most aren’t commenting:

Uber investor Bradley Tusk of Tusk Holdings took a much softer tone than the Kapors. “I think Uber has done a very good job reacting to this quickly, thoroughly and aggressively,” Tusk told CNNTech. “Given the level of people they’ve brought in, there’s tremendous potential to both create exceptional practices and then see those standards and practices become adopted across the Valley.”

Nihal Mehta, an indirect investor in the company, told CNNTech that Silicon Valley is already plagued with “brogrammer” culture. “When something of this magnitude comes out, it’s serious … The real test is going to be whether they implement the changes they recommend or go back to business as usual.”

Kalanick also held a meeting on Thursday with a group of over 100 women engineers to talk about Fowler’s allegations and the underlying issues they revealed, according to BuzzFeed:

Liane Hornsey, Uber’s chief human resources officer, also attended the meeting and urged employees to trust that the company is working to address its aggressive workplace culture. “I know many people are in pain, and I know there’s many things we have to go through together,” she said. “But at some point, we just have to shift into something that is more positive and assumes trust, and tries to believe that we’re doing the right thing.”

Another engineer asked Kalanick what he thought of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s comments two years ago that women should trust that “the system will actually give you the right raises,” despite low diversity at technology companies. “I believe that first the trust must be earned,” Kalanick said. “But I also understand that we’re operating here in a system that hasn’t earned that trust. … God willing, we will earn it. But we still need to do that.”

Kalanick also revealed preliminary data about the company’s gender balance, showing that women hold only 15.1 percent of technical roles at Uber—a low figure, but only a few percentage points lower than other leading tech companies, and has promised to issue a broader diversity report within the coming months. Inc. reporter Salvador Rodriguez criticizes the company for not paying more attention to diversity and inclusion sooner, adding that the promise to begin diversity reporting now “underscores what a mistake it was to wait for the inevitable public shaming before acting.” He uses the story to try to make a larger point about the value of diversity as well:

Uber and every company in Silicon Valley would do well to understand that the inclusion of women, Hispanics, and blacks is not a charitable endeavor or a way of shutting up critics. It’s the key to tapping the talent pool of the future. Women earn more than 50 percent of U.S. university bachelor’s degrees, and minorities are America’s fastest growing populations.

The tech industry cannot go to Washington, beg Congress for open borders and more H-1b visas, and argue that there is not enough talent in America capable of building its machines and writing its codes when you have environments like the one that Fowler dealt with at Uber.

Uber’s culture challenges may be even bigger than diversity, however. In a New York Times feature, Mike Isaac tries to get a sense of what Uber’s internal culture is really like, reporting “what current and former Uber employees describe as a Hobbesian environment at the company, in which workers are sometimes pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers.”

If Uber does have a toxic culture, Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan concludes after interviewing numerous current and former employees of the company, the problem “seems to center on how the human resources role was conceived at Uber by its brash and commanding leader Kalanick”:

The issue: He felt the function of HR at Uber was largely to recruit talent and also efficiently let go of personnel when needed, according to sources. It’s not unusual for a tech startup to focus primarily on recruiting, especially at the stage where Uber was before 2014. But an Uber spokesperson conceded that though there was coaching and mentorship, it might not have been enough. And that’s apparently why it took until 2014, when the company had around 500 employees, for the company to hire its first official head of HR, Renee Atwood.

Bhuiyan also took a look this week at Uber’s new diversity officer, Bernard Coleman III:

It won’t be the first time Coleman was thrown into a difficult role. The longtime human resources operator joined Uber after more than a year of working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as the chief diversity and human resources officer. It was the first time a presidential campaign had a position of its kind[.]

Bhuiyan passes along this representative quote from Coleman, which he gave during an interview with Nasdaq about the diversity lessons he took away from the campaign:

Unfortunately, many organizations have a see-say problem: Their HR departments and websites state one thing about their mission for diversity, but when you really get inside the organization the culture does not reflect what they’ve been saying. Buy-in and true commitment can only come from the top, from leading by example. You can’t change the culture if you’re not authentic in your commitment to changing it. Employees see right through that and it undermines future efforts of the organization to find diverse talent.

Coleman undoubtedly has his hands full following the new scandal, as do members of the company’s PR team. The company’s investigation is underway, but Fowler’s allegations are already hurting Uber’s standing with consumers, as the scandal has quickly resurrected the #DeleteUber campaign on social media, which had originally started in opposition to Uber’s perceived support for President Donald Trump last month and led Kalanick to quit Trump’s advisory board of corporate executives. Quartz’s Alison Griswold tallies the toll the scandal has taken on Uber’s public relations and user base so far:

From Jan. 1 through Feb. 22, Uber accumulated 4,479 one-star reviews from US users in the iOS App Store, according to data from analytics firm App Annie (the highest possible rating is five stars). The biggest surge in negative reviews occurred on Jan. 29 and Jan. 30, after Uber was accused of attempting to disrupt a New York taxi-worker strike against US president Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” That backlash launched #deleteUber and helped Uber amass 2,398 one-star reviews from US users in the iOS App Store over just two days.

It’s worth noting, however, that while some of the negative reviews mention Fowler’s letter, far more complaints are centered around concerns regarding user privacy, so it’s not ultimately clear how much of the response has been directly related to this latest scandal. Uber is responding to the revived #DeleteUber campaign by sending users who delete the app and cite Fowler’s story a message expressing the company’s commitment to addressing the allegations, Mashable reports:

A screenshot of one such interaction, confirmed to Mashable as authentic by an Uber spokesperson, demonstrates the lengths to which the company is going to assure fleeing customers that “what [Fowler] describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” A spokesperson said the above language was only used in response to customers who specifically referenced the latest allegations, and that the number of account-deletion requests following the publication of Fowler’s blog post have been low.

“Everyone at Uber is deeply hurting after reading Susan Fowler’s blog post,” the message reads.