Can You Change a Culture Like Uber's?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 23, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's been a rough few weeks for Uber. First, the ride hailing company's mishandling of protests around the president's travel ban launched a #deleteuber campaign that saw thousands canceling their accounts. Then, last Sunday, a former Uber engineer's blog post detailing sexual harassment at the company went viral. Just days later, a New York Times article revealed the "aggressive," "Hobbesian," and potentially law-breaking culture inside Uber's offices.

Can such a culture be fixed?

Sexual Harassment, With the Support of H.R.

Let's start with the engineer's experience at Uber. On Sunday, Susan J. Fowler published a blog post detailing her "very, very strange year" at Uber. A site reliability engineer with the company, Fowler claims she was sexually harassed by a manager on her first day with his team. When she reported it to human resources, Fowler says she was given two options: to find a new team at Uber, or stay with her current placement, but suffer a negative performance review.

"One HR rep even explicitly told me that it wouldn't be retaliation if I received a negative review later," Fowler wrote, "because I had been 'given an option.'"

Though she had been told that this incident had been the manager's first offense, later discussions with other women revealed many similar instances with the same manager, all of which had also been brushed under the rug by H.R.

Then on Wednesday, a report by the New York Times seemed to confirm that, indeed, Fowler's year at Uber wasn't unique. The report, based on interviews with 30 current and former employees, shines a light on a culture that previously "was only whispered about in Silicon Valley." Some highlights:

One Uber manager groped female co-workers' breasts at a company retreat in Las Vegas. A director shouted a homophobic slur at a subordinate during a heated confrontation in a meeting. Another manager threatened to beat an underperforming employee's head in with a baseball bat.

What's to Be Done?

After Fowler's story went viral, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick pledged to get to the bottom of things. The company brought on Eric Holder, the former attorney general, to lead an investigation into harassment claims and the alleged failings in Uber's human resources department.

Some have wondered where the company's lawyers were during all this. Sharon Vinick, a plaintiffs attorney in nearby Oakland, told the Recorder that if Uber's in-house attorneys didn't know about the claims of sexual harassment, "then they failed to properly train their human resources department," If they did know, she says, "and did nothing, honestly, that's just appalling."

Changing an organization's culture isn't impossible though, and bringing in outside counsel to investigate can be a decent place to start. To reform, the company will have to understand the need to change, something, perhaps, that Uber is now coming around to. (Consumer outrage and a handful of sexual harassment lawsuits have provided additional motivation, of course.)

But that realization needs to be backed by resources -- training, education, hiring initiatives, a more empowered legal team. Uber may need to lose some resources as well, like high performing managers and executives with records of bad behavior. A fish, after all, rots from the head down.

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