Culture in Crisis: What's Next for Uber & Tech?
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.
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, , Director, Women in Comms