In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Uber director Arianna Huffington joined newly appointed chief HR officer Liane Hornsey and Rachel Holt, who heads its North American operations, to discuss how the ride-sharing startup has responded to allegations of sexual harassment and widespread sexist behavior at the company that came to light a month ago, which prompted calls from investors and current and former employees to address what they described as a toxic workplace culture.
According to the Verge, there were no major announcements on Tuesday’s conference call, as the Uber leaders “acknowledged that there were serious problems with the company, but sought to convey the message that things were well in-hand”:
Huffington repeated her promise to hold [CEO Travis] Kalanick’s “feet to the fire,” as well as her declaration that there would be “no room for brilliant jerks” at Uber in the future. Hornsey discussed efforts to improve Uber’s hiring processes and training programs to improve diversity and ensure that efforts to report harassment and sexism aren’t sabotaged or ignored[.] …
“We need to bring more humanity to the way we interact with drivers,” Holt said, before ticking off all the things Uber was doing to accomplish that. This includes easier-to-read earnings statements and a new app feature that allows riders to correct pick-up locations without canceling a trip in-progress. Uber will also take into account the number of trips completed by a driver when weighing deactivation as a result of rider complaints, Holt said, so a driver who completes 10,000 trips receives more deference than a driver who completes just 10 trips.
Hornsey also confirmed that the company’s first diversity report was on its way; that report is currently expected to come out early next month.
One question that has hung over Uber in recent months, as it has weathered a series of scandals and pledged to reform its culture, is what will happen to Kalanick, whose “move fast and break things” business philosophy and professed disdain for rules have been identified by some observers as potential sources of the company’s culture problems. When asked about this on the call, however, Huffington said the question of replacing Kalanick “has not been addressed” by the board “because it hasn’t come up and we don’t expect it to come up.”
In fact, Hornsey added, Kalanick was not on Tuesday’s call because he was too busy interviewing candidates for Uber’s first COO, a role that, like her own, is being added to help the startup mature as a company and to help Kalanick do a better job of leading it. That search may be complicated by the public departure of Uber’s president Jeff Jones, who resigned on Sunday after just six months at the company, saying in his resignation letter that “the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.”
Jones, Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer observes, had bumped heads with Kalanick on a number of issues, including whether to respond to drivers’ requests for changes like in-app tipping. “The ugly split with Jones,” Newcomber points out, “further complicates Kalanick’s attempts to navigate Uber’s crises”:
Along with fulfilling his promise to seek “leadership help” by hiring a chief operating officer, Kalanick must fill new holes in his top ranks and prove that Uber’s culture isn’t beyond repair. “Startups that lose people, that happens,” said Bill Aulet, a senior lecturer on entrepreneurship at MIT. “But startups that lose people in such a bitter way that they don’t believe in the company’s existence? That’s toxic.” …
If not for the maelstrom at Uber, the COO job might be one of the Valley’s most appealing job openings. The privately held company was valued at $69 billion by investors last year, making it the world’s most valuable technology startup. But the company risks setting expectations for this role too high, said Robert Siegel, a lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business: “Is an outsider coming in going to fundamentally overhaul the culture in and of itself? No.”
The Uber leaders also said the company just had its best week ever in the US, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the #deleteUber boycott campaign launched on social media in January in response to Uber’s perceived coziness with the Trump administration and rekindled last month after the sexual harassment allegations came to light.
Alison Griswold at Quartz isn’t the only one who noticed that all four of the Uber representatives on the call were women—Huffington was even asked on the call whether that was intentional:
The absence of any male voice stuck out at a company rarely touted for its female leadership, and accused by its own employees of having a “systemic problem” with sexism.
“They are the women running Uber. It’s not like we got them from central casting,” Huffington said, when asked why only women appeared on the call. “I think we should take it as a really good sign of how women are valued at the highest levels of Uber.”