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Culture in Crisis: What's Next for Uber & Tech?

Sarah Thomas
3/13/2017
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While the consensus around the recent Uber revelations of sexism and general cultural toxicity was that it was appalling but not the least bit surprising, the hope now is that this coming to light will serve as a tipping point -- the time to finally make a real, lasting difference for women in tech.

For Uber, it's a sink-or-swim opportunity -- its reputation and potentially even its business is on the line. The company has raised $12 billion in private funding and is slated to go public soon, an IPO which could -- and should -- be in jeopardy. It's an opportunity to prove you can teach a sexist dog new tricks and encourage other tech companies to change their ways as well.

In case you haven't seen the steady stream of damning Uber-news in recent weeks, let's recap (and note this is just as it relates to its culture, not the other litany of offenses of late):

  • Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler posted a blog post outlining her year at the company during which she was sexually harassed, ignored and reprimanded repeatedly by HR, discriminated against because of her gender and her willingness to stand up for herself and worse. (See Uber's HR Nightmare: Company Investigates Sexual Harassment Claims.)
  • Uber responded by saying it will launch an internal investigation and change its ways, starting with letting go its new Senior Vice President of Engineering Amit Singhal, who did not disclose that he left Google over accusations of sexual harassment. It's also looking for a COO to help. (See Uber Engineering SVP Out as Probe Continues.)
  • A video of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver over reduced wages and poor driving conditions is made public, reinforcing the CEO's reputation as arrogant and immature.
  • Another anonymous report of "abuse and dehumanizing treatment" against women that was endorsed from the top down at Uber was published under the headline, "I'm an Uber survivor."
  • A third female former Uber engineer, Kaela Lusk came forward to share her story of discrimination and abuse, perpetrated this time by a female manager at the company.

Suffice it to say, things are bad at Uber, and they appear to be getting worse before they (hopefully) get better.


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All of Uber's problems share one thing in common: company culture. CEO Kalanick created and reinforced a culture that rewarded in-fighting, ignored and even encouraged sexism and celebrated an "every man (and especially woman) for himself" attitude. Fixing Uber will require changing its culture, and that is no small task.

"They might bring in a consultant from the outside or get some kind of off-the-shelf program that addresses bias, and they might change some of their policies, but when the culture doesn't support that change, then you are not going to see progress," says career coach and gender consultant Bonnie Marcus, noting, "and we haven't seen progress."

Righting the ship
For Uber, or any company looking to genuinely change what has become an embedded, top-down culture it takes a complete overhaul of how they do business, including getting rid of bad seeds, establishing and enforcing core values, committing to transparency and equity and practicing what they preach. Tech companies in the Valley may be known for their quirky perks and generous parental leave policies, but they mean absolutely nothing if the culture is toxic.

"The perks are great but when women are marginalized and excluded from networking opportunities, when there is no equal pay for equal work, when they face bias and put-downs and have less sponsorship opportunities, that I think is much more indicative when you look under the covers than what these great benefits are," Marcus says. (See What Is Your Company's Gender IQ? and Championing Change: It's a Cultural Thing.)

For a company to start on the long journey to revamping its culture, Marcus offer a few suggestions. Here is her blueprint:

  • First and foremost, take an objective, in-depth look at the company culture. Understand it by surveying the people who work there. Ask how they feel, what challenges they face and what their perception of the culture is.
  • Use this information to tailor and customize a "transformation program" that meets the actual needs of the employee base.
  • Make sure there is buy-in on the transformation from the top. "The CEO should not only set and support policy changes, but be a role model," Marcus says. "There needs to be accountability, incentives for managers to support policy changes, accountability and transparency."
  • Set short and long-term goals to drive incentives and behaviors. "Figure out what behavior they need to change specifically and then create a plan and incentives around it," Marcus says.

To Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president of marketing, alliances and programs at the Anita Borg Institute, a cultural overhaul comes down to three things: leadership, accountability and a holistic approach to solving the problems.

"You have to have a commitment from the top and accountability through the entire line of management," she says. "You have to be transparent about where you stand and what the problems are and bring holistic solutions to it. A lot of times relative to gender diversity, we see people focus just on recruiting but not retention or advancement. You have to look at all those pieces."

Ames says this includes asking questions like, what are the behaviors you reward? How do you evaluate and advance people? Do your employees understand what it takes to advance? Do you look at who is advancing and why? Often, she says, there are cultural things built into these systems, so the systems themselves have to be re-evaluated and biases have to be removed.

As an example, Ames pointed to Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), which has been successful in increasing promotions of women in its technical roles. She said they provided every manager data on their employees who had been consistently highly rated but not promoted. Unconscious biases came out, and outdated ways of promoting such as giving preferential treatment to those that are close to the manager or who tend to look the most like the team came out. Equipped with the data, Intel was able to see who was highly rated but not getting promoted and rectify the situation. Women, Ames says, often fell into this trap. (See Intel Updates on its Diversity Initiatives and Intel Closed the Gender Pay Gap in 2015.)

For Uber, or any company, a cultural transformation is not going to happen overnight. The bigger the hole they've dug, the longer it'll take to climb out of it. No company has got it completely right yet. But, the important thing is that there is an authentic, transparent and comprehensive commitment to doing so.

For Uber, it remains to be seen if that's what we have here. But, if the beleaguered ride-hailing app can do it, the lessons will surely be relevant to the tech industry at large as well.

"It's not something you do for a couple of years then check a box and are done," Ames says. "The culture of your organization is really important, and it's never completely done. You are always trying to make it better."

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Director, Women in Comms

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kq4ym
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kq4ym,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/21/2017 | 11:28:16 AM
Re: Too late for Uber?
The HR problem does indeed seem to be a tricky one to overcome. But, in order to overcome the past companies do have to institute a culture of listening to employees. Noting that "surveying the people who work there. Ask how they feel, what challenges they face," can go a long way to not only improve morale but to get changes in the culture that really matter and ultimately will bring a better sense of equality and fairness to the workplace.
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/14/2017 | 3:08:19 PM
Re: Too late for Uber?
As you've suggested, HR departments reflect the organization's "values." For the vast majority of mature organizations, that means handling employee issues in a way that minimizes the potential for legal liability. That can easily be misread as "caring about the employees." From this perspective, working for a public company is better than working for a private company or startup because public co.s have more to worry about regarding employee relations.
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
3/14/2017 | 3:00:14 PM
Re: Too late for Uber?
And also to make it known when there are bagels up for grabs in the conference room.

When there is a creep at the company propositioning women from sex, firing -- or at least putting him on notice -- is as much about protecting the company as it is protecting the employees he's harassing. Having their poor treatment of the employee come to light is ultimately a lost worse than getting rid of a high performer.
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/14/2017 | 10:20:23 AM
Re: Too late for Uber?
It's not unreasonable to say that for ALL HR departments, protecting the company is the top priority.  
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
3/14/2017 | 9:09:54 AM
Re: Too late for Uber?
Hi BenA, thanks for sharing your experience and sorry it was such a poor one. I agree with you that HR departments set up in companies with a culture like Uber's are designed to protect the company not its employees. I would hope they are not all that way, however.

Also, I don't agree that Fowler's post was career suicide. I think it was brave and important, and a lot of other companies will see it that way as well, especially ethical, innovative startups. Plus, she already had another job when she wrote it. She got a lot of positive attention from the post, although a lot of trouble too including someone (Uber?) investigating her personal life and harassing her family and friends. 
BenA
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BenA,
User Rank: Light Beer
3/13/2017 | 7:54:43 PM
Re: Too late for Uber?
Uber culture aside, HR's attitude is not uncommon in the industry. I wasn't surpised by what Uber's HR did to Fowler. I work for a company listed in the Fortune 100. I also went to HR once, but not about sexual harrassment. It was over an ethics issue about my manager. Given one of my company's value is "Conduct business with uncompromising integrity and professionalism". Long story short, HR's attitude was unless I am willing to open an investigation and press charges there is nothing they need to do. If the manager decide to retaliate, I need to collect the paper trail to prove it since it would be I said he said. Knowing my manager, that will never happen since he likes to skip the e-mail even if I put everything in e-mail. My manager at the time would do everything verbally and ding anyone who tries to create a paper trail and deemed the behavior as "bureaucratic" during employee eval time. Also reading in between the line, HR's "suggestion" seems to be go to a different group and this whole problem can go away just like Fowler's case. I got the hint and quickly found another group. I later talked to others who delt with HR before and they schooled me on the true function of HR.

The HR's first and foremost function is to protect the company from liability while keeping the key personel (e.g. CEO, VPs, anyone in executive ranks, and high management level) who are not easily replaced from leaving due to involuntary reasons such as Folwer's case. Their job is to sweep the problem under the rug if possible and pray the problem would just go away. In Folwer's case, Uber's HR did exactly that. Since the said manager is a "high performer" this means in the Uber's eyes that manager help contribute to Uber's success/bottom line and it would be diffcult to replace him. Folwer on the other hand is nothing special and her job is just another req away from getting back filled. From what I read, given her job description and her expirence, she can be replaced by another H1B or new college grad to be honest based on my experience. However, her manager's position is not easily back filled and might damage Uber's bottom line. So Uber's HR choose not to protect Folwer over her manager. They even give the same "advice" as my HR dept gave me.

I'll bet when the investigation by the Uber's external hire is over, there will be some sort of policy change recommendatation, but beyond that, everything will be the same old same old after this whole thing blows over. I hope Folwer would make it out ok since she just committed career suicide by going public. No HR dept in any company would want to approve hiring her since she is a liability to the company.
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
3/13/2017 | 9:10:02 AM
Too late for Uber?
As you can imagine, the Uber topic has come up a number of times at the women-focused panels at SXSW already. There's been some dissenting views on the matter. One good one from author and Silicon Valley writer Dan Lyons was that it's too late for Uber, but the problem of bro-culture and how women are treated will be solved when a new crop of startups comes up and replaces the old order of Uber, Twitter, Amazon, etc.

What do you all think?
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