Uber announced on Tuesday that it would no longer require employees, drivers, or customers who experience sexual harassment on the job or while using the ride-sharing service to adjudicate their claims in arbitration proceedings. Coming in response to pressure from former employees and customers, the change will allow alleged victims of sexual harassment in the US to pursue claims against the company in court. Uber will also no longer bind accusers to confidentiality requirements as a condition of receiving a settlement on the company, though it will continue to keep financial details of such settlements confidential.
In a blog post, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer Tony West said the company would also publish a public safety transparency report including data on sexual assaults and other incidents that take place on its platform.
Hours after Uber’s announcement, Lyft also announced that it was waiving its standard arbitration agreement for sexual assault claims and would no longer impose confidentiality requirements on alleged victims of sex crimes, Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan reported later on Tuesday. Lyft also intends to release a safety report on sexual assault complaints it receives on its platform; Lyft COO Jon McNeil wrote on Twitter later Tuesday afternoon that his company would be happy to work together with Uber on this reporting project.
West said Uber had made its decision in the interest of transparency, but also acknowledged the risk the company was taking in being more open about these allegations (albeit a risk mitigated to some extent by the participation of its chief competitor):
We believe transparency fosters accountability. But truthfully, this was a decision we struggled to make, in part because data on safety and sexual assaults is sparse and inconsistent. In fact, there is no data to reliably or accurately compare reports against Uber drivers versus taxi drivers or limo drivers, or Uber versus buses, subways, airplanes or trains. And when it comes to categorizing this data for public release, no uniform industry standard for reporting exists today. Making things even more complicated, sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime, with two out of three assaults going unreported to police. …
We’re working with experts in the field to develop a taxonomy to categorize the incidents that are reported to us. We hope to open-source this methodology so we can encourage others in the ridesharing, transportation and travel industries, both private and public, to join us in taking this step. We know that a project of this magnitude will take some time, but we pledge to keep you updated along the way.
These new policies come a little more than a year after Uber became embroiled in a scandal over allegations of rampant sexism, sexual harassment, and hostility toward women within its workplace. That and other scandals led to founder Travis Kalanick being replaced as its chief executive by former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who immediately embarked on a massive culture change project.
But this is about customers as well as employees, Quartz’s Alison Griswold points out, coming after past investigations turned up thousands of customer-support tickets referring to “sexual assault” or “rape” and found that many Uber drivers had been accused of sexual assault. Also, Griswold notes, Uber still won’t allow victims of assault to bring class-action claims against it:
In November 2017, two women in California filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that Uber’s “woefully inadequate background checks” had created a platform that exposed thousands of female passengers to “rape, sexual assault, physical violence, and gender-motivated harassment.” In March 2018, Uber came under fire after court records showed it had tried to push the women in that case toward individual arbitration. “Arbitration is the appropriate venue for this case,” an Uber spokesperson said at the time. The company’s revised policies, in addition to not being applied retroactively, also don’t apply to class-action claims. That means victims who wish to file lawsuits about harassment will still have to do so individually, and will still not be able to bring a case on behalf of many plaintiffs.
Uber’s announcement on Tuesday came days before its deadline to respond to that lawsuit, Recode’s Bhuiyan points out. Lyft’s stance on class action lawsuits remains unclear.
Mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure agreements, controversial practices in their own right, have been identified as contributing to the underreporting of sexual harassment and assault when companies enforce these agreements on alleged victims. These criticisms are finding their way into state legislatures, so Uber is also getting ahead of likely legal changes here: In March, Washington state barred the use of NDAs and arbitration agreements to prevent employees from filing lawsuits or speaking out over sexual assault and harassment. Other states are likely to follow this course, while a bill to ban arbitration of sexual harassment claims has also been introduced in the US Congress.
California, where Uber is headquartered, is weighing legislation that would ban arbitration clauses in employment contracts altogether, backed by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, whose public allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination sparked the Uber scandal and helped launch the #MeToo movement. At the federal level, the Supreme Court is currently considering a group of cases it took last year to decide whether it is constitutional for employers to prevent workers from pursuing class action lawsuits over labor disputes. The court is divided on the issue, but a decision in that case is expected soon.