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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brooks7 2/23/2017 | 12:33:59 PM
Re: Wondering it that too... There is one thing that should be added to this conversation, because I think it is important in the context of diversity.  Silicon Valley is extraordinarily culturally diverse.  One of the challenges with that is that some of these cultures do not like or respect one another (you can see that in sub-teams that are almot monoculture within a larger more diverse organization).  The second thing (and the relevant bit here) is that many of those cultures are not as supportive of women in the workplace as others.  I don't think is a defining reason, but a contributing factor in reistance to change.

mendyk 2/23/2017 | 11:40:57 AM
Re: Wondering it that too... Really? Bro Culture is firmly established as mainstream in entrepreneurial circles. A devastating blog post -- or even three or four of them -- isn't going to do much to change that. However, if Uber suddenly lost the 50% or more of its customers who are non-Bro, THAT would get some attention. What's the chance of that happening?
Sarah Thomas 2/23/2017 | 11:22:33 AM
Re: Wondering it that too... Her goal might have just been to expose Uber and raise awareness of its culture, which is not dissimilar from many tech companies. She definitely succeeded in that. It has (re)started a conversation about situations like this across the Valley. Hope it leads to change too.
mendyk 2/23/2017 | 10:08:28 AM
Re: Wondering it that too... Ellen Pao seemed to have a pretty strong case as well. And she had the resources to pursue. Going to court is good business for lawyers. For plaintiffs, it's a big gamble. And it takes years to get to resolution, even if you win. Uber and its leaders have shown nothing but contempt for anyone or anything that gets in their way. But the kids love it.
Kelsey Ziser 2/23/2017 | 9:28:48 AM
Re: Wondering it that too... I haven't read Fowler's blog, but maybe she just wanted the media to catch wind of the story and force Uber's hand to make policy changes that way. Taking the matter to court might have been too costly for her -- both in time and money. Plus, if I'm reading @Joe's comments right, the likelihood of her winning the case or coming away with a "meaningful amount of money" is low. I also imagine your own character would get dragged through the mud in case like this. 
LucyTaylor 2/23/2017 | 8:54:12 AM
Wondering it that too... I have been wondering it myself. Given the fact that she had a certain amount of evidence, she could have easily bring this to the court. Being a criminal law passionate myself, I can't find the reason this didn't happen.
Joe Stanganelli 2/22/2017 | 7:40:37 PM
Re: Bad times at Uber > the CEO severed ties with the president in an attempt to earn back customers

Strictly from a branding perspective (i.e., devoid of ideological considerations), this may have been a mistake.  Backtracking (except over the most mortal of sins) on top-level decisions rarely wins over any hearts.  People who are annoyed at you still remember why they are annoyed at you, and people who respected you may stop respecting you.

(Remember Uber's blog post where they violated user privacy by tracking probable one night stands?  Probably not until I mentioned it, right?  They sure didn't backtrack from that, and -- as far as that particular issue is concerned, their brand has remained pretty intact.)

Moreover, as a colleague of mine pointed out to me recently, isn't it MORE valuable to keep a seat at the table to make sure that your and your customers' concerns are heard?  Uber could have spun that as "We are actively participating in this group because we want to make sure that the voice of our customers -- the voice of you -- is heard."

Maybe it would have worked, maybe wouldn't have worked -- but it's not like the people who were angry at Uber for not uniting with the striking taxi drivers have exactly forgiven the company.

And then, of course, there are counter-backlash issues to consider, too, for brands these days.

So who knows what's right anymore?
Joe Stanganelli 2/22/2017 | 6:44:21 PM
Re: No lawsuit? @Sarah: Speaking as an employment attorney (who has worked for both plaintiffs and for employers), there could be a zillion reasons.

A sampling:

* Statute-of-limitation periods on employment-related claims can, depending upon the state, be much shorter than other types of claims.

* Other female engineers telling her tales of their own sexual harassment = inadmissible hearsay (usually), unless they actually join with her in her complaint as parties themselves (and, in that case, their own complaints would need to fall within the statute of limitations).

* Plaintiffs rarely keep very good, usable records -- which is especially problematic because most employment-discrimination and sexual-harassment cases ultimately boil down to little more than he-said/she-said.

* For a VARIETY of reasons too numerous to list here, few people with employment-related claims -- even if fully legitimate -- have a "good case" (i.e., one that is likely to win, and win a meaningful amount of money or acquire a meaningful settlement). 

* Moreover, many times, people even self-sabotage their cases without even knowing it (usually by way of things they say to their employers, for example) -- and then, by the time they think to bring it to a lawyer, it's too late to undo the damage.

* And more.  This is just a sampling.

(DISCLAIMER: Of course, none of this -- here, or elsewhere publicly posted on the Internet -- is legal advice, and none of this is the creation, affirmation, or implication of an attorney-client relationship.  For actual legal advice, contact an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.)
KBode 2/22/2017 | 3:25:49 PM
Re: No lawsuit? Also wondered this when I read the reports.
JamesNorwick 2/22/2017 | 8:44:36 AM
Re: No lawsuit? I agree with you Sarah, I wondered that too. Fowler might have taken it into the court, especially if she managed to get other women to support her claim too. A curious thing.

And I always thought that working for Uber is such a simple job, just sitting in a car and driving people...Yes, I read that Ms. Fowler is an engineer but still...Guess I was wrong.
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