Dumpster Fire at Uber Highlights Pitfall of Forsaking HR in Favor of Recruiting

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Mar 8, 2017

No one wants to be the Uber-of-whatever these days. Headlines alleging sexual harassment will do that, I guess.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, you’re well aware of the mess over at ride-sharing service Uber. If not, Susan Fowler, a former site reliability engineer at the company, recently wrote about her “very, very strange year at Uber,” characterized by a troubling culture of alleged sexual harassment. Her post includes disturbing, and probably illegal, managerial activities. For example, Fowler claims her boss told her she could be fired for reporting harassment.

The picture being painted in the media is one of a fast-growing company that, frankly, couldn’t be bothered with the processes and oversight that come with HR. Recruiting was king, and coddling super coders took precedence over legal compliance systems, audits, and leadership development.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and prominent board members like Ariana Huffington, with the cooperation and support of the head of HR, are currently investigating the claims made by Fowler. People have been fired, and more heads will likely roll. The response has been immediate and appropriate.

The reaction does not, however, address the divide between recruiting and HR.

Recruiting is sexy. It brings in the people who help a business grow. This translates into happy shareholders, board members, and executives. In the early stages of a company, HR’s “seat at the table” is usually in response to everyone wanting talent to keep walking through the door. HR doesn’t usually become “HR” until retention — or a high profile sexual harassment allegation — becomes an issue.

Uber apparently lacked the support system typically provided by HR in favor of a recruiting-focused foundation. And it cost it, dearly. Some even go as far as to say it has destroyed its employer brand altogether. Probably hyperbole, but there’s no doubt this time bomb exists in way too many startups and companies the kids call “unicorns.” I expect more light to shine on this issue as more females find a voice and come forward. International Women’s Day protests anyone?

The bottom line: companies that have moved out of mom’s garage need to start treating HR with the respect it deserves. Recruiting is a vital component of HR, but it is only one component. Too many employers hire a handful of sourcers and call it HR. It’s not. If you’re being investigated for sexual harassment, no one will care that you pursue a corporate culture of disruption or recruit Python developers at a lightening pace.

Just as a CFO would be expected to hold an organization accountable for risky patterns in spending, employees expect HR to hold leaders and coworkers accountable for fiduciary, legal, and strategic risks. All too often, startups forget this reality in favor growing headcount.

Uber’s crisis is not only an example of how organizations shouldn’t skimp on, ignore, or mislabel HR, it’s an example of how organizations shouldn’t mistake recruiting for having a human capital foundation. Establishing an HR function for the sole purpose of having a world-class team of recruiters is like setting up a marketing department to only post pictures on Instagram.

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