It’s been over a week since the most recent Uber crisis, and the company has taken great pains to let the public know that it’s willing to change. But it’s the coming months that will really dictate whether or not it plans on truly fixing its internal problems.
Here’s a quick rundown of what’s been facing the company recently. First, former engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post detailing the sexual harassment she experienced during her time at Uber, claiming that it was disregarded by human resources. Then, the New York Times wrote an in-depth exposé about working at Uber, citing over 30 current and former employees who preferred to stay anonymous. It detailed allegations similar to Fowler’s, along with other anecdotes about a permissive culture of debauchery and harassment. Following that, a tape was leaked to Bloomberg that showed a cringeworthy shouting match between CEO Travis Kalanick and an Uber driver over cutting prices. A few days later another New York Times piece came out, this one detailing a technology it built–called Greyball–which was used to surreptitiously identify enforcement officials in cities where the Uber’s services were prohibited.
As a result, the company has spent the last week on the defensive. Kalanick announced that the company would pursue an internal investigation of Fowler’s allegations. Those leading the investigation, however, have ties to the company, including board member Arianna Huffington and former attorney general Eric Holder, who has advocated for Uber in the past. Once the tape of Kalanick’s argument with the driver went public, he announced to employees that things would change. “It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up,” he wrote in a note.
Though Uber is trying to prove that it can change its ways following this string of events, the question remains: What does it actually plan to do, and what will it take to fix their broken culture?
In a recent New York Times article, columnist Farhad Manjoo looked at this recent Uber saga as potentially a moment for new leadership strategies to come forth and include more women and minorities in tech. He quotes VC Freada Kapor Klein, a well-known advocate for diversity and inclusion in Silicon Valley, on the best way for Uber to go forward:
Ms. Kapor Klein is looking for several steps. She wants Mr. Holder’s report to detail for the public everything he’s found at the company. She wants to see new policies for how Uber hires people, ones that put more weight on the diversity of its workforce. She wants the company to offer more formal and informal ways for employees to report problems to management, including allowing them to do so anonymously in order to avoid retribution. She also wants Uber to offer more training for employees, and better workplace surveys to get a sense of what’s going wrong.
I emailed Kapor Klein to ask if she had anything else to add that would help fix the company’s systemic cultural problems. She wrote back explaining that “every company needs a customized, comprehensive approach that fits their business, their culture, and their stage of growth. Uber is no exception.”
Kapor Klein said that she launched a diversity consulting nonprofit organization called Project Include with Ellen Pao, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. (Pao sued her former employer venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination in a high-profile case in 2015.) Project Include aims to provide research-based solutions to the sort of culture and diversity problems that Uber faces. One of these solutions focuses on conflict resolution and systems for incident reporting–something Uber greatly needs. “Uber provides a pretty stark example about the harm traditional human resources departments can do when they’re set up to protect upper management rather than the workers,” Kapor Klein wrote in her email.
Beyond that, the work starts at the leadership level. Kalanick’s actions are going to be even more under a microscope as a result of these events. It’s up to him and his team to be earnest and forthright on how to approach this problem. “Any team knows whether their boss is sincere, or just saying what needs to be said to get through the current crisis,” wrote Kapor Klein.
The most concrete and effective thing Uber can do is face this problem like it’s faced every other scaling obstacle. The company has grown to be worth at least $28 billion, according to Bloomberg, and that surely requires a business plan. Solving internal cultural problems requires that same sort of implementation and finesse. The best way to begin fixing these internal fissures is to first create a more diverse and inclusive environment. To many in the industry, dealing with issues like diversity and inclusion doesn’t go much beyond a vague public statement saying that their company cares about the issue.
Companies’ systemic lack of diversity, according to Professor Joan C. Williams of University of California, Hastings College of the Law, stems from two types of biases. Blatant bias is when someone is egregiously discriminated against, and the solution to eliminating it is to ensure those types of actions are prohibited. There’s also subtle bias, Williams says, where there might not be over-the-top examples of harassment, but there’s still a distinct lack of diversity and inclusion. When that happens, she says, it’s probably because bias is an unconscious part of things like hiring, performance reviews, and promotions.
“The solution is to change your business systems,” she says. If there’s something hindering a company financially, she explains, a smart organization would perform “evidence-based analysis.” This would require developing a metric for what needs to be improved and then holding themselves accountable to accomplish that metric.
It’s more than just founding a women’s initiative or bringing on a couple of speakers, says Williams: “Use analytics and big data to actually solve a business problem.”
Williams’s tool kit suggests these metrics to help figure out how bias plays out inside a company:
- Do your performance evaluations show consistently higher ratings for men than for women, people of color, or other relevant groups?
- Do women’s ratings fall after they have children? Do employees’ ratings fall after they take parental leave or adopt flexible work arrangements?
- Do the same performance ratings result in different promotion or compensation rates for different groups?
Organizations can measure how these metrics improve over time with internal surveys. Williams has created a program called Bias Interrupters to help businesses attempt to tackle this problem.
She’s also begun to analyze data associated with it. Williams cites one new finding, which has yet to be published, where a big STEM company adopted a more thorough approach to bias training, similar to the prescriptions her program offers. The organization also began to evaluate how employees responded to this new system. According to Williams’s data, both women and people of color felt “increases in belonging.” They also saw an increased intent to stay among these demographics. Of course this is a small subset–one company adopting a formalized approach to attacking this problem–but it does show promising and quantified outcomes.
To add to that, Kapor Klein believes that technology can help advance this. “A whole new crop of tech startups are tackling this issue of mitigating bias at scale–whether it’s resume review or interview questions or technical coding interviews. Tech tools can be used to fix tech culture,” she wrote.
If the taxi giant wants to successfully begin to reform the toxic culture so many people claim it has, Uber must craft a specific plan for what everyone–from the top down–needs to do to make the place more inclusive. And they need to check to see if it’s working by using real data and analysis.
Uber also needs to be more transparent. This is the one area where the company has continuously refused to act. The only way for people to see what happens inside the company has been through blog posts like Fowler’s or anonymous accounts. The best way for a business to figure out its shortcomings is to be ready for critique. “This means detailing the results of its internal investigation to the public, being clear on the initial steps it’s taking to build a more inclusive culture, and being open and accountable to internal and external feedback,” wrote Kapor Klein.
This is going to require a seismic shift in how the company views itself in relation to both its employees and people on the outside. While Uber has now pledged to release its diversity report, it only did so in light of recent news. Until now, the company did not understand the need for such measures.
I recently chatted with Uber’s new chief HR officer, Liane Hornsey, before these allegations came to light. I asked her why the company hasn’t released a diversity report. She said, “I haven’t seen it move the numbers. I haven’t seen anyone who’s done it say it’s made any difference for them. I reserve to right to really think about that over time. But it hasn’t worked for anyone, so why would I?”
The company has now shifted its thinking on releasing diversity numbers. But it’s that knee-jerk response of “Why would I?” that demands introspection, and absolutely needs to change in order for real progress to come.