Tone at the top - Uber's sexual harassment problem that neuters HR

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy February 23, 2017
Uber's current HR crisis is a text book example of tone at the top leading to a failing culture. How Uber addresses this will determine the extent to which it matures into a truly great company.

Uber riots

This week has seen plenty of coverage over troubling sexual harassment issues at Uber. Here's the short version. Last weekend, Susan Fowler, an ex-Uber employee penned a lengthy blog post about being sexually harassed and the fact that Uber HR seemed to take little notice and/or ignored her appeals for help.

Worse still, her performance evaluations were changed to make it appear that she was underperforming. In short, she was effectively punished for reporting behavior that in any company I know would have led to the firing of the offender. She found another job.

Even so, I admire Ms Fowler's uplifting closing remarks:

When I look back at the time I spent at Uber, I'm overcome with thankfulness that I had the opportunity to work with some of the best engineers around. I'm proud of the work I did, I'm proud of the impact that I was able to make on the entire organization, and I'm proud that the work I did and wrote a book about has been adopted by other tech companies all over the world. And when I think about the things I've recounted in the paragraphs above, I feel a lot of sadness, but I can't help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was. Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.

Regardless, her story was quickly picked up and it didn't take long for the sleuths at The New York Times to get more than 30 people, either current or past Uber employees, to recount similar stories.

For his part, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick went into hand wringing mode, promising a full investigation with former US Attorney General Eric Holder on the case along with board member Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post. All very reassuring. Except that it isn't.

Huffington wrote an interesting note about the situation saying:

I just joined Travis and Liane Hornsey, Uber's recently hired Chief Human Resources Officer, for the company's weekly meeting. We spent over an hour discussing women in the workplace — and talking about the review that's underway by Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran into diversity and inclusion at Uber.

Travis spoke very honestly about the mistakes he's made — and about how he wants to take the events of the last 48-hours to build a better Uber. It was great to see employees holding managers accountable. I also view it as my responsibility to hold the leadership team's feet to the fire on this issue.

Change doesn’t usually happen without a catalyst. I hope that by taking the time to understand what’s gone wrong and fixing it we can not only make Uber better but also contribute to improvements for women across the industry.

Anyone notice the three big problems here?

  1. The opening paragraph has almost nothing to do with the crisis facing Uber. Diversity and inclusion may well be laudable goals but neither of those will materialize unless and until the culture at Uber changes and offenders dealt with appropriately - which should mean firing them.
  2. Problems related to sexism and misogyny at Uber of the kind Ms Fowler describes have a history that goes back years, with Kalanick often at the center of controversies involving women. Check The horrific trickle down of Asshole culture: Why I've just deleted Uber from my phone by Sarah Lacy who, from what I can see, has been running an ongoing campaign about Uber and Kalanick since forever.
  3. What is there to learn? There is no news here. Except maybe one thing.

Ms Fowler and others may well be the immediate and obvious casualties of sexual harassment but it is HR that ultimately loses credibility. It does so by failing to robustly stand behind employees who are under attack. But then how can HR prove effective when the tone at the top is so poor?

I don't care how much Kalanick might be walking around in sack cloth today, what matters is exactly how he is going to retain the hard charging qualities that have helped Uber succeed while at the same time rooting out assholes.

Ben Thompson at the usually erudite Stratechery makes an odd statement in one of his email newsletters when he says of Uber: is always difficult to disentangle a company’s fundamental performance from any one executive’s input, particularly when that company is on a rocket ship.

Really? I can immediately think of nine technology vendors who absolutely would not be where they are today without incredibly strong founders/executives: Apple, Amazon, Oracle, Intel, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce and SAP. There will be others but those were the names that popped into my head without any effort.

I would also argue that in each of these cases, the co-founder/CEO is enormously important in setting the tone. I have known CEOs who fired high performing executives because behavior went against what the company says it stands for. Why?

If what you say is one thing but what you allow to happen is another then the organization quickly becomes corrosive. Equally, if you say the company has a 'no asshole' policy but act like an asshole then others assume it is OK to act as assholes. Get the picture?

Over the years, I've had extensive conversations with leadership in some of the companies mentioned above along with many others. You quickly get the sense those that want to 'do the right thing' firmly believe demonstrating what that 'right thing' looks like matters in a profound manner. Those leaders really care about this topic. And it is eminently do-able without losing any ability to compete effectively in the marketplace and we have the evidence to demonstrate that.

We have for example written extensively about the many good things we see among HR organizations that are succeeding in hiring, retaining and growing talent. Check this compendium of top HR stories that Janine Milne assembled for 2016. Janine has written over 120 stories that talk to the lessons and positives that great HR delivers. It's not impossible and, as the variety of story illustrates, can be accomplished in any company with the will to do what's needed under an empowered HR organization.

That has clearly not been the case at Uber. Until Kalanick mandates HR to operate with purpose then Uber will not change and HR will be relegated to a bare bones admin function. Then what?

Ms Fowler's account amply demonstrates that Uber offers an interesting and challenging environment for programmers. That's an important plus. But if it comes with shitty managers who routinely behave badly and get away with it, then that's not sustainable. Indeed, it might well be that reality forces Kalanick into responding positively rather than hoping the current crisis dies with the news cycle. Uber's future ability to innovate and compete may well depend upon that kind of root and branch change.

I'm not holding out much hope. As I was completing this story, I saw a post by Mitch Kapoor, one of Uber's investors and a highly influential voice in Silicon Valley. He and his wife Fraeda said this: 

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.

We are concerned that the company will try to manage its way past this crisis and then go back to business as usual. Uber has had countless opportunities to do the right thing — from signing on to the Kapor Capital Founders’ Commitment to working with Project Include to building out their diversity & inclusion team years ago to developing a state of the art people ops function.


Image credit - via Uber and AARP

Disclosure - Oracle, SAP and Salesforce are premier partners at time of writing

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