Bleak Employee Morale at Uber — and What You Can Learn From It

Today would not be a great day to be the head of talent acquisition at Uber (with apologies and much support to our colleague who holds that position).

On Sunday, a former software engineer at Uber named Susan Fowler published a detailed, heartfelt blog post — that went hugely viral — about her experiences with sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Uber. According to Fowler’s account, the outright mistreatment that she experienced consistently went unaddressed, even though she regularly reported her issues — with full documentation including screenshots — to several members of the Uber human resources team. Here’s a telling excerpt from her blog post:

On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat …It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer”… and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, tweeted just a few hours after the blog post first appeared that it was the first time he had been made aware of the situation, and that he had instructed his company’s new chief human resources officer “to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations.” But it was too late: the infamous #DeleteUber hashtag had already resurfaced, encouraging users to stop using Uber in favor of other providers.

Kalanick also announced that he would enlist the help of Uber board member Arianna Huffington to participate in the investigation; later it was further announced that former Attorney General Eric Holder and other top attorneys had also been appointed by Kalanick to take a lead role in the internal investigation. In other words, Uber is bringing out the big guns — which feels fitting given how Fowler’s complaints seem to have been systematically disregarded and swept under the rug in favor of protecting her male managers and colleagues. (You can read the full text of Kalanick’s blog post here.)

For Uber, this is the third in a string of public relations disasters that have led to the popularization of the #DeleteUber hashtag, and cost the company customers, revenue, goodwill … and high-level talent. In January, when protests erupted at airports following the executive order barring refugees and visa holders from seven countries, Uber announced via Twitter that surge pricing had been turned off — which was interpreted by many as an attempt to break up the strike and take advantage of the situation. In the following weeks, Kalanick faced enormous internal pressure over his participation in the President’s Economic Council.

It’s no surprise that this string of events has led to bleak employee morale, as one employee told Bloomberg. And bleak employee morale is not an easy situation in which to attract top talent — especially in Silicon Valley where competition for talent is tight. In particular, I’d imagine that female engineers are currently thinking twice before submitting their job applications to Uber.

So what should Uber do from here to rebuild its credentials as a top place to work, and attract top, diverse talent?

Take Bold Action

Kalanick has already taken a first good step by addressing these allegations swiftly and publicly. At his all-hands meeting on Tuesday, he apologized and expressed a commitment to drive diversity and a “workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do.” But after these words must come clear, swift action in the form of policies and programs that will fundamentally change the Uber culture to one where employees of all kind can thrive.

Several other companies have recently taken bold, public steps to show that they are building diversity into the structural foundation of their company. Dell published a Corporate Social Responsibility Report at the end of its FY16 to outline the many programs and clear-cut goals it has in place to attract top talent of all kinds and be a great place to work. For example, one of their signature programs includes transitioning 50 percent of its workforce to flexible work arrangements by 2020.

Patagonia created a signature onsite daycare program, and then brought great attention to it via an article published by their CEO on Fast Company. The article shares not only the benefits of the program but actually shows how it pays for itself in tax benefits, employee retention, and other benefits.

In the face of a potential drastic talent drain, Uber has to figure out what tactics are most important to its current — and prospective — workforce and figure out how to be an innovator in at least one area. At this point, it feels like a unique signature program that supports and gender diversity might be a good place to start.

Engage Top Leadership in Diversity, Culture … and Talent Attraction

Microsoft announced in November that it would tie executive bonuses to corporate diversity targets. JPMorgan notably has an executive steering committee of eight people, of which three are women. Accenture made waves when it became the first management consulting firm to publish gender diversity statistics.

General Mills, Verizon, and HP announced that they would require greater gender diversity from their advertising agencies, indicating that their marketing decision-makers were structurally as much a part of their company’s commitment to diversity as the CEO’s.

For Uber to make the deep cultural change that will need to occur after this string of crises, diversity, equality, and fair treatment of employees will have to become a key priority of every Uber manager. Further, if Uber is to rebuild its ranks with top talent, each leader in the organization will need to become engaged in recruiting and employer branding. That means blogging, social media posts, conference appearances, on-campus recruiting, and more.

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Learn to Love Transparency

My mother constantly tells me that she doesn’t know whether the sink is broken in her guest bathroom unless someone uses it and tells her. To draw a parallel (maybe strained) between the sink and Uber’s situation, Kalanick claims he was completely unaware of the adversity Fowler was facing. If that indeed is the case, one of key actions that companies can take is to get more deeply engaged with anonymous job review sites including Glassdoor, Comparably, and naturally companies like my Fairygodboss, which targets women. 🙂

Many companies I speak to tell me they are nervous about engaging with user-generated content about their company. But Fowler’s blog post indicates in a big way that employee experiences — good or bad — can go public whether the company sanctions UGC or not. As one wise CMO of a large investment bank once told me, “the conversation is going to happen whether or not you choose to engage in it.”

Instead of fearing anonymous job reviews sites, CEO’s should embrace them as a tool through which they can learn the unvarnished truth about their employees’ experience.

One of the main themes we heard when we were doing original research to launch Fairygodboss was that often, senior leadership is unaware of what’s happening in the lower ranks. Thanks to added transparency created by digital tools, that no longer needs to be true. Every CEO should be eager and willing to hear what employees have to say anonymously about his or her organization. Otherwise, bad situations can come to a boil and create a public relations — and talent acquisition — crisis like Uber is facing today.

Romy Newman

Romy Newman is cofounder and president of Fairygodboss, a business with the mission is to improve the workplace for women everywhere. Before venturing into the crazy world of entrepreneurship, she ran digital advertising sales and operations at The Wall Street Journal, and also worked in marketing at Google and Estee Lauder. She studied American studies, literature, and art at Yale and many more practical things at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. She is a frequent contributor to Fortune, Huffington Post, and Inc. She is a proud mother of two, wife to a very supportive husband, devoted yogi, and crossword puzzle lover. She has been lucky to have great workplace experiences, and she  is motivated by helping other women find great careers and workplaces.