Blogs. Companies either love them or loathe them. Done well, they can engage an audience, encourage conversation or showcase someone’s knowledge on a key topic. Susan Fowler’s high profile blog on her time at Uber ticked all the ‘done well’ boxes, yet I’m guessing Uber secretly loathed it.
In February this year, Susan Fowler published a blog on her website detailing her time working as a site reliability engineer (SRE) at ride sharing start-up turned industry giant, Uber. Between joining in November 2015, to leaving in December 2016, Fowler described a culture of sexism, harassment, and bullying which has tainted the brand and set the ball rolling on a cataclysm of events which culminated with CEO, Travis Kalanick resigning from his role just a few short days ago.
While Kalanick takes the brunt of the blame for a number of high profile cock ups, you can’t help but ask where HR were in all of this. If you’ve not caught up yet, here is a timeline of how disaster unfolded at Uber:
February 19 – Susan’s blog
The beginning of the end for Kalanick as a former engineer, Fowler, details numerous instances of sexual harassment and bullying reported to HR which were continually brushed aside. Her time at Uber details the plight of an individual who was passionate about her work, but failed by her company.
February 20 – Uber brings in the lawyers
The day after Fowler’s blog hits, Uber hires former US attorney general Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran, both partners at law firm Covington & Burling, to investigate the claims.
March 1 – Dash cam meltdown
Footage emerges of Kalanick swearing at an Uber driver regarding the company’s treatment of drivers (ironic!). Kalanick issued an apology to all his employees by email and commits to getting leadership help.
March 24 – Karaoke and sexual favours
Five employees (paywall) at Uber, including Kalanick were reported to have frequented a karaoke bar in Seoul during a business trip to South Korea, all standard fayre until you realise that the bar also offers escort services. The report indicates that a female employee was present who complained to HR about the incident.
June 6 – Employee cleanse
Uber fired 20 employees following an investigation into its workplace culture by law firm Perkins Coie. The firm had investigated 215 staff complaints going back to 2012, 54 were related to discrimination, 47 related to sexual harassment, 45 to unprofessional behaviour, and 33 to bullying.
Uber also hired Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei to train all its managers.
June 7 – Uber gets tough on execs
The company release Uber’s president of business in Asia, Eric Alexander, for his mishandling of a 2014 rape investigation in India.
June 12 – No.2 is no more
Uber’s number 2, and Kalanick’s confidante, Emil Michael leaves the company as part of a top-level exodus following the departures of president and marketing chief Jeff Jones, finance chief Gautam Gupta, and senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal.
Michael was implicated in the escort/karaoke bar scandal and suggested that Uber dig up dirt on journalists critical of Uber.
June 13 – Holder’s report
Uber releases a 13-page report by Eric Holder recommending guidance on a number of topics including alcohol consumption, workplace relationships, and effectively handling complaints. Uber unanimously adopt all the recommendations.
June 14 – Kalanick takes an indefinite leave of absence
Following the death of his mother, Kalanick takes an indefinite leave of absence leaving the company’s day to day operations in the hands of a 14 member committee of senior execs.
In an unrelated matter David Bonderman, venture capitalist and Uber board of directors member, resigns following a sexist remark during an all-staff meeting. Interrupting a speech celebrating the boards’ ratio of women increasing from 14% to 25% with a ‘joke’ implying that there will be more talking at future meetings.
June 20 – 180 days of change campaign
Uber announces a new campaign to reshape the struggling company’s image. New initiatives such as tipping drivers and adding driver-injury protection insurance are welcomed among staff.
June 21 – Kalanick shown the door
At the request of five investors, Kalanick resigns.
Money where your mouth is
You’re probably thinking this is a fairly in-depth piece to highlight sexual harassment at Uber, and you’re right but there is a reason behind the word count.
The timeline shows an amalgamation of reports, firings, resignations, marketing campaigns and legal undertakings which would have cost Uber millions, and a further few billions in share valuations. Online backlash such as the #deleteUber campaign also saw 500,000 users delete their accounts in just one week.
If you take Fowler’s blog at face value (and considering the legal investigations, 13-page recommendation report, and numerous firings and resignations it would be hard not to) all of this could have been avoided if legitimate concerns brought to the attention of HR would have been treated with the care and attention they deserve. Imagine how much time, effort and money would have been saved had the correct processes been followed and had they undertaken a no-nonsense stance on harassment, be it sexual, racial or gender related.
Equality is the easy part
It may sound condescending but it’s true. Treating all people equally should be the easy part. Making sure that employees are valued for their performance and not their gender, sexual orientation or race is simple. It shouldn’t get to the stage where lawyers are brought in to run reports on workplace culture. You needn’t pay millions investigating reports of harassment, especially when many of those reports, allegedly, were accompanied by hard facts and evidence.
For too long employees have seen HR as being only about the welfare of the employer. If handled correctly, HR should protect the rights of everyone within a business regardless of position.
Sadly, heads needed to roll before changes were made at Uber. But with the company valued at over £60bn, they are afforded the time to implement those changes. Unfortunately, not all companies are as fortunate as Uber. Second, third and fourth chances are unheard of outside multi-billion-pound industry giants. The ones who should know better rarely do, and those that do, rarely get the credit they deserve.
Internal HR departments can be a great tool but if a company is toxic then the spread will infect all. It took more time and effort for Uber to do a bad job than it would have taken for them to do a good one. Had the HR department stood firm and done the role they were in place to do, then the rest of the timeline falls away.
It remains to be seen whether Uber can bounce back from this. One thing that is certain is that they will be under a microscope from this point on, as people wait for the next inevitable addition to the timeline.