In German, über means being the best or superlative in its class. It also means to an extreme or excessive degree. Car service app Uber literally has an über mess on their hands as a result of a blog post by one of their former Engineers, Susan J. Fowler.
On February 19, she posted a blog, Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year With Uber, an account of her year with the Bay Area firm and her claims of being sexually harassed, discriminated against, and generally being treated incredibly poorly.
Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, seemed to quickly acknowledge how horrifying and disturbing Fowler’s account was, tweeting twice the day the blog came out. He first wrote “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired”, and one minute later, “I’ve instructed our CHRO Liane [Hornsey] to conduct an urgent investigation. There can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber.” Two days later, Kalanick announced that, in addition to Hornsey, he would engage Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General, Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post and an Uber board member, and others to help with the investigation.
Uber’s decision to make a grand announcement that they brought in luminaries Holder and Huffington is likely meant to demonstrate that Uber takes this situation very seriously, and I have no doubt in their ability to conduct a thorough investigation
Once the dust settles, what Uber will need to focus on is gaining back trust from customers, employees and even future employees. But how?
- Let employees bring complaints to anyone they feel comfortable with: At some point, Fowler felt that Uber’s human resources team was not helping her, and going to the immediate managers above her was also not successful. Uber, like all companies, should make it clear that employees can go to anyone, up to and including the CEO, if they do not feel comfortable going to HR or their manager.
- Conduct exit interviews: I do not claim to know how Uber handles employee departures, and in the case of Fowler, the situation may have been too far gone for her to wish to participate in an exit interview, but it is a good lesson. Meet with employees when they resign to learn more about what is prompting the move. Often, employees are hesitant to complain or provide constructive feedback while employed, and once they make the decision to move on will be more forthcoming.
- Clear communication to employees and customers: We may never know the outcome of this case in its entirety, which is perfectly understandable. These situations require a degree of confidentiality and discretion, but Uber should make both its team members and customers aware of their harassment and discrimination policies. Training should be done across the organization on these topics to ensure that the message is clear to everyone, at all levels, that Uber will not tolerate this going forward.
- Commit to hiring a diverse team: Part of Fowler’s accusation is that Uber’s team is predominately men, and that the number of women in leadership fell drastically during her tenure with the company. If this is true, shame on Uber. I know from doing executive searches in the Bay Area that finding candidates that reflect the diversity of the Bay Area, particularly women in technology roles, can be a challenge. But it is not impossible. I’ve done it for clients, Facebook has done it, Google has done it. It takes time and effort, and it is not just about finding women and diverse candidates at the leadership roles. It also takes a future-focused effort of having diverse pools of candidates for every role, at every level of the organization, and then ensuring that they have opportunities for training and career development.
- Become a better corporate citizen. As an Uber customer, I know that they do a lot for charity in their markets, and I applaud that commitment, but now may be the time to do something more significant. Creating a charitable foundation that provides significant financial support to nonprofits focused on bridging the opportunity divide for women and those from diverse backgrounds in the Bay Area (and elsewhere) such as San Francisco Achievers, Year Up, and Girls Who Code, to name but a very few, would help to demonstrate a deep and meaningful commitment to change financially, and would help to prepare women and diverse candidates for careers in technology and other areas where Uber hires.
While Fowler’s experience at Uber may ultimately end up in the history and law books among the notorious cases such as the Clarence Thomas Hearings, Tailhook, and the David Letterman scandal, Uber could very well turn this unfortunate situation into a positive. America, after all, has long adored a comeback story.
Cindy Joyce is the CEO of Pillar Search & HR Consulting. Pillar provides national executive search services for exceptional non-profits and foundations and socially responsible for-profit firms desiring top talent who want an occupassion, not just an occupation. In addition, Pillar offers human resources consulting services including leadership coaching, human resources audits, handbooks, assessing organizational design, training, team building, and employee communications. A woman-owned business, Pillar is based in Boston, MA, and works on both the local and national level. For more information, please visit www.pillarsearch.com or email Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org.