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Uber's HR Nightmare: Company Investigates Sexual Harassment Claims

Sarah Thomas
2/21/2017
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Inside the walls of Uber is what you might call an HR nightmare -- except human resources itself is perpetuating the nightmare.

Former Uber Engineer Susan Fowler, who left the company in December, says she was subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination since day one on the job and was punished, lied to and ignored when she tried to report it to both the HR department and her higher-ups.

Fowler made the allegations Sunday in a personal blog post, "Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber," accounting for why she left the ride-sharing company after only one year and lobbing some seriously shocking accusations against it.

Travis Kalanick, co-founder and CEO of the multi-billion dollar company, responded Sunday Tweeting that what was described in Fowler's blog is "abhorrent & against everything we believe in." As a result, Uber has hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder and his law partner Tammy Albarran to conduct an independent review into the issues Fowler outlined, along with Uber board member Arianna Huffington, General Counsel Angela Padilla and Chief Human Resources Officer Liane Hornsey.


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As for the allegations, Fowler says that on her first day on her new engineering team at Uber, her direct manager propositioned her for sex over chat. She took screen shots that she immediately shared with HR and upper management. While they agreed with her that this constituted harassment, they told her it was his first mistake and not a punishable one given that he was a "high performer." Fowler was also told she could join a new team or expect a justifiably bad performance review from this manager.

From there it only got worse as Fowler heard from other female engineers that it was not, in fact, even close to his first offense, even though all the women were told that and none got any retribution. Fowler also reported that the company culture was one in which managers would fight their peers and undermine their supervisors in attempts to take their jobs. The end result was chaos with projects being abandoned, nothing getting done and employees living in fear of reorganizations.

Fowler reports attempting to transfer several times, but being blocked because of so-called "performance problems" and bad reviews. She experienced several more incidences of sexism in the workplace, all of which she documented and submitted to HR. HR, however, suggested she was the common thread in all these problems, and her manager suggested she might be fired for reporting his manager to HR.

Fowler didn't name names in her blog post, nor share her documentation, but that should become clear in Uber's investigation into her accusations. As part of this, Uber says it will also look at overall diversity and inclusion. Kalanick wrote in an email to employees, obtained by Fortune, that it has 15.1% females in engineering, product management and scientist roles, a number that has not changed substantively in the last year and that is more or less in line with other major tech companies. He said the company will publish a broader diversity report in the coming months. (See A Vast Valley: Tech's Inexcusable Gender Gap.)

As TechCrunch points out in a blog post today, Uber isn't the only company still grappling with, and mishandling, sexism and sexual harassment in the workforce. This month's lawsuit against Magic Leap is another extreme example, but women -- and men -- working in the Valley have similar stories to share about their own experiences of sexism, bias and discrimination. It's a culture that's become endemic in the Valley. While it's often hard to prove sexism in lawsuits, public accounts like Fowler's help expose the problem and are hopefully a first step to changing toxic company cultures. (See Is Magic Leap a Mirage of Misogyny & Deceit?, Ellen Pao Returns to VC to Tackle Tech Diversity and Tales From the Valley: Bias, Sexism & Worse.)

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

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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/1/2017 | 12:45:05 PM
Re: No lawsuit?
@freehe: It's not just women.  Male employees with legitimate employment beefs too (including, in one instance, a male employee -- not a client -- who was peripheral to a matter which which I was involved having been fired in likely reprisal for taking legitimate FMLA/paternity leave).

And I see the same thing with age discrimination claims, ADA claims, and even contested unemployment-benefits cases.
freehe
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freehe,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/26/2017 | 10:27:58 PM
Uber
I was a huge fan of Uber. I still am but this gives me pause. It seems as though the only place women are safe is at home. On the way to work, at lunch, after work or at the job women are frequently harrassed sexually or non-sexually and it is tragic that no one cares enough about women to do anything about it.
freehe
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freehe,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/26/2017 | 10:26:12 PM
Re: Wondering it that too...
@Joe Stanganelli, I know it won't but it should. This is a topic for another discussion but until women are viewed as equals in the workforce this will continue to occur.
freehe
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freehe,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/26/2017 | 10:04:03 PM
Re: No lawsuit?
@Joe Stanganelli, thanks for the insight. It is so complicated no wonder women rarely win their cases.
freehe
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freehe,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/26/2017 | 10:00:53 PM
Re: No lawsuit?
@Sarah Thomas, it is good that she didn't name names because the Uber could sue her and win because they have money more to hire lawyers even if they are guilty.

Hopefully she decides to sue Uber, this is the only way to stop this behavior at companies.

 
freehe
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freehe,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/26/2017 | 9:56:21 PM
Re: Bad times at Uber
@Sarah, this disgusts me. It is harder enough for women to get into the workforce and then have to deal with this. I have been sexually harrassed too many times during my career and each time feel like the first time. It is horrible to be treated in that manner. Most companies protect the managers and do nothing to help the victims which are usually women.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/26/2017 | 12:27:17 PM
Re: Wondering it that too...
@mendyk: RARRGH...That makes me ANGRY!  I'm going to shame you on my Tumblr now!

jk.  :)
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/26/2017 | 12:26:08 PM
Re: Wondering it that too...
@brooks: Oh, yes, I'm well aware of the bureaucratic hoops and hurdles surrounding the legacy taxi profession (and how expensive compliance matters are there).

Which is the nice thing about services like Uber and Lyft and the like -- that they democratize a system that has been fundamentally broken for a long time.
mendyk
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mendyk,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/24/2017 | 2:05:45 PM
Re: Wondering it that too...
The point is that we all can be very selective when it comes to our "outrage," and one of the biggest factors in determining degree of outrage is how an issue affects us personally. We're seeing this play out on a very wide scale with US entitlement programs right now. Most of what passes for outrage now is pretty shallow. And yet, we are in what may ultimately be known as the Era of Rageaholics.
brooks7
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brooks7,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/24/2017 | 1:07:51 PM
Re: Wondering it that too...
@Joe,

There are regulatory requirements that Hotels that compete with Airbnb and Taxi Drivers that compete with Uber have to fulfill.  That is a very different situation from Myspace and Facebook.  Now, should the taxi industry done a better job - Yes.

Let me use a simple example here.  If you are an Uber Driver, they are going to have to walk a REALLY fine line on W-2 versus 1099 employee.  The State of California has a separate view from a Worker's Comp standpoint than the IRS does from a Tax standpoint.  Uber drivers don't have to apply for a hack license where taxi cab drivers do.

seven
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