Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, amidst a media uproar over allegations of illegal human resources practices and pervasive sexual harassment, has opened an internal investigation. Board member Arianna Huffington and former attorney general Eric H. Holder, Jr. are reported to be supporting the investigation.
Kalanick held a meeting on February 23 with a group of 100+ Uber female engineers to listen to their concerns. He learned quickly from one female engineer who expressed the majority point of view that referring in abstract terms to unfair working conditions won’t solve the company’s public relation issues nor its internal cultural problems.
Can we stop saying if there’s a systemic problem here? I think it’s really important that we get there. I think for years in tech we’ve been saying if there’s a systemic problem there. And saying where’s the data to suggest that there’s a systemic problem. We have the data, we have the anecdotes, we have it happening in our own backyard. When are we going to get together and say that there is a systemic problem here — and stop using hypotheticals?…. I think is starts before that; I think it starts with listening to your own people.
The tensions at Uber emerged last week when former engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post in which she chronicled a year of work at Uber. In that narrative, she described a chaotic internal culture, a human resources department that made excuses for sexual harassment, frequent episodes where victims were blamed, and a pattern of promotions based on insider preference rather than data-driven performance.
In a statement issued several hours after Fowler’s post, the Uber CEO said that what Fowler described “is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.”
Some might disagree.
Kalanick has built a business through a leadership style that is more truculent than compassionate, more in-your-face than compromising. And it’s worked, at least to a certain degree, in that Uber’s global brand visibility has never been higher. Kalanick was even invited to be part of President Trump’s business advisory council; however, that backfired, as protests against the CEO mounted, with council members seeming complicit with Trump’s announced immigration ban. Kalanick felt compelled to resign and announced that decision in a memo to employees.
Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that. There are many ways we will continue to advocate for just change on immigration but staying on the council was going to get in the way of that.
Kalanick ended his resignation memo by confiding that his most vocal critics “have kept me resilient and reminded me of one of our most essential cultural values, Be Yourself.”
Being yourself may not actually be the best approach to reconciling cultural problems at Uber, as it’s not just the political internal Uber workings that have Kalanick on the hot seat (pun intended). He has been accused of using language that objectifies women. His own discourse, then, has contributed to a cultural climate in which corporate strategies to drive Uber’s growth have fostered a culture of sexism.
Kalanick offered some concessions during his meeting with the female engineers. “So I empathize with you, but I can never fully understand, and I get that. I want to root out the injustice. I want to get at the people who are making this place a bad place. And you have my commitment to make that happen.”
It’s been a bad start to 2017 for Kalanick. Let’s see if investigations and a bit of CEO soul-searching will have any impact on the employment environment at Uber, which is renowned for having high stress levels and significant turnover.