It’s been a tough week for Uber’s company-culture image. A blistering blog post written by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler chronicled claims of rampant sexual harassment, and an ambivalent response from HR.
A few days after Fowler’s post, the New York Times reported even more revelations about sexual harassment and sometimes illegal behavior. Uber was described by the Times‘s Mike Isaac as a “Hobbesian environment” where “workers are pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers.”
What exactly Uber is like inside is of course still unclear. But one thing is certain: There is no one problem that leads a company to this point. A broken company culture is the result of a lot of problems. Let’s look at what might have gone wrong.
Company culture crises are often the product of many small failures. Human resources is important in order to keep things in check. Fowler describes how Uber’s HR ultimately failed her. “When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment,” she writes, “they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”
Ineffective human resources is one of the most persistent problems that plague all companies, no matter what their size. For Fowler, HR was the only recourse she had to report managers’ wrongdoings. The system that was meant to document and thoroughly investigate the claim chose to (according to Fowler) turn a blind eye in favor of a manager who allegedly produces good results. HR’s failure to provide a safe environment in which employees can report misconduct left Fowler feeling unsupported. In the end, she felt she was left with no recourse but to ignore the harassment or leave. Change is only being brought about now because Fowler went public with her story.
Most tech companies tout their “company values” as a defining element of what makes their company culture unique. Uber has 14 of them, which include such vague statements as “always be hustlin'” and that employees should “be themselves.” These maxims mean nothing at best, and at worst leave what is considered appropriate conduct open to potentially poor personal judgment.
These phrases fail to communicate what top brass believes their company to be. They are empty gestures that widen the gap between executives and employees, as they show a disconnect with what people do every day to keep a company afloat, and how leadership describes their work. This is a common symptom of internal company strife. “It can be really difficult to know, especially at the top, what your culture is,” says Ursula Mead, founder and CEO of HR insights platform InHerSight. It’s even harder to know how it shifts if a leadership team isn’t aware of what’s happening on the front line.
“Culture bubbles from the bottom,” says Mead. In other words, if the company focuses only on profit and scale, it leaves culture to be created on its own and sends the message that results by any means necessary trump everything else. Descriptions of Uber’s culture in both Fowler’s post and the New York Times report have painted the picture of a Darwinian environment in which individuals viewed their colleagues as competition rather than teammates.
The lesson here, which should be obvious, is that it’s important for leadership to set the tone and expectations for company culture, and to lead by example. “It’s easy for leadership to think that some of their top-down management can apply to culture,” says Mead. Leaders need to make sure they have a direct line to what’s actually happening and understand how to make sure everyone is heard.
Perhaps one of the biggest factors that is exacerbating Uber’s toxic work culture is its lack of transparency. Investors Mitch Kapor and Freada Klein have come forward to voice their disapproval. “We feel we have hit a dead end in trying to influence the company quietly from the inside,” they write. They go on to critique the task force Kalanick formed to look into the sexual harassment allegations, which consists of two Uber employees and an Uber investor. “We are disappointed to see that Uber has selected a team of insiders to investigate its destructive culture and make recommendations for change,” they write. “To us, this decision is yet another example of Uber’s continued unwillingness to be open, transparent, and direct.”
Ultimately, it’s those last three words that will help the company transform to be not only better respected but equitable to everyone who works there. Uber has never released a diversity report, although Kalanick announced a few days ago that following this ordeal, the company now plans to.
Diversity reports don’t in themselves create a more inclusive culture (especially if the numbers never move), but they do provide a signal to people, both on the outside and inside, that the company is aware of its problems and hopefully working toward changing them. As Mead put it, it’s “demonstrating that you’re willing to have that transparency and that openness.” It took the company’s feet being held to the fire to even consider taking this one step.
Uber appears to have so far refused to investigate where the toxicity is coming from. Instead, it’s painted over its issues and focused on scaling. What Uber is facing now is the culmination of its inability to listen and own up to its problems. To many, issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion seem like soft issues. But it’s becoming clear how important it is for Uber to incorporate these issues into their culture, which ultimately factor into making a company successful.