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Women In Comms

Uber's HR Nightmare: Company Investigates Sexual Harassment Claims

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 2/24/2017 | 12:43:18 PM
Re: Wondering it that too... > while its customers had no problem with having a negative impact on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of cab and livery drivers.

I can't join you there.  It'd be like blaming Google and Wikipedia and the people who use Google and Wikipedia for the economic woes of Encyclopedia Brittanica's employees (or, for that matter, blaming Google and its users for employees at Yahoo suffering, or blaming Facebook and its users for employees at MySpace suffering, and so on).  If "legacy" cab and livery drivers provided more cost-effective and better service while continuing to innovate, Uber would not have been so disruptive.

As for me?  I drive, take public transit, and walk.  I don't like any of them.  ;)
mendyk 2/24/2017 | 9:47:14 AM
Re: Wondering it that too... Precisely -- targeted economic boycotts rarely work. It's also a little funny that Uber is getting angried at for this issue, while its customers had no problem with having a negative impact on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of cab and livery drivers.
Joe Stanganelli 2/24/2017 | 8:31:49 AM
Re: Wondering it that too... @mendyk: I think that at the end of the day, most people just want to do business with companies whose products and/or services they prefer -- regardless of social matters.  It's not a signal that they approve of a company's CEO or culture.  It's that they just want what's cheaper, fastest, higher quality, better service, or otherwise to their preference.

Henry Ford was an on-the-record anti-Semite.  People -- regular people who find anti-Semitism appalling -- still buy Fords just the same.

People were frothing at the mouth over the Apple/Foxconn worker-treatment scandals a few years ago -- but very few indeed actually stopped using or buying Apple products.

Numerous telecoms, social networks, and similar companies have committed enormous breaches of customer privacy and trust (in some cases lawfully, in some cases maybe not so much) -- and as much as we hate it, most of us still do business with at least one such company.  Not many of us are doing all of our Internet searching on DuckDuckGo, all of our social networking on Diaspora, and all of our telecommunicating via independent, privacy and security conscious carriers.

A sexual-harassment scandal may hurt Uber short term, but it is very unlikely to topple it.
Joe Stanganelli 2/24/2017 | 8:00:21 AM
Re: Wondering it that too... @Sarah: Indeed, there are courts of law, and then there is the court of public opinion.  If all you really want is to effect change and be heard, sometimes the latter can be more efficacious.
Joe Stanganelli 2/24/2017 | 7:58:33 AM
Re: Wondering it that too... @Lucy:

> Being a criminal law passionate myself, I can't find the reason this didn't happen.

There's a big difference between criminal law (where the government prosecutes the defendant) and the law of torts (e.g., where a private party sues someone for an unlawful social infraction (and not involving the law of contracts)).

That said, of course there are times when sexual harassment (especially when there is a physical element involved) constitutes some form of a crime.  But, alas, DAs' offices and AGs' offices can't go after everything.
mendyk 2/23/2017 | 3:57:32 PM
Re: Wondering it that too... There's no evidence that Uber actually makes money, but there are more than a few unsubstantiated reports that it loses bigly -- as in, a couple of billion dollars last year. The perceived financial health has everything to do with projected valuations -- which is why a company like Uber acts the way it does and usually gets away with it.
Sarah Thomas 2/23/2017 | 3:22:42 PM
Re: Wondering it that too... It has been losing customers for awhile now for a whole host of reasons, but no, it doesn't seem to be in real financial danger over this yet.

Some of its early investors are now calling it out for appointing insiders to deal with the "investigation" and calling on it to change its ways for good this time: https://medium.com/@mitch_freada/an-open-letter-to-the-uber-board-and-investors-2dc0c48c3a7#.hv6715zgl
Mitch Wagner 2/23/2017 | 3:04:10 PM
All about the leather jacket Kara Swisher: For the want of a leather jacket, is Uber lost? Sexual harassment is evil but at least understandable. The business about the leather jacket is just plain petty, mean, and unnnecessary. 

Not included in Swisher's article: The manager's alleged approach wasn't just wrong -- it was clumsy and boorish. It's not about seduction; it's about dominance and exercising power. 
Mitch Wagner 2/23/2017 | 2:58:09 PM
Re: Wondering it that too... As an attorney I respected used to be fond of saying: When you go to court you do not get justice. You get law. 
mendyk 2/23/2017 | 2:51:33 PM
Re: Wondering it that too... seven -- You'll probably get some pushback on the idea that Silicon Valley is extraordinarily culturally diverse. But I don't think that's what's at issue here. SV has developed its variation on the old boy network, and I don't mean that strictly in the sense of gender. It's all about personal pipelines, relationships, and such. Stanford good, Chico State not so much. That sort of thing.
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