Uber: A Cautionary Tale for HR Policy

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Uber: A Cautionary Tale for HR Policy

What happens when you try to grow a business without well-crafted HR policies? Enter: Uber. Taking a look at the challenges that this popular rideshare company has faced can help you understand what not to do when shaping the culture of your business.

Let’s focus on an important issue: sexual harassment in the workplace. While sexual harassment may seem like a well-defined issue that all companies should do their best to avoid, it doesn’t always pan out that way. Uber, headquartered in Silicon Valley, is taking some serious heat for its alleged poor treatment of female employees. One striking study makes it clear that this problem is not unique to Uber.

Concerned about sexism, inequality, and issues affecting women in Bay Area workplaces, a team of seven women sponsored and published the Elephant in the Valley survey. The study, which includes data from more than 200 women, each with at least 10 years of experience, provides a disturbing view of Silicon Valley from the inside:

  • No Goldilocks here: 84% of respondents reported being told they were too aggressive or too meek.
  • Invisible: 88% noted that associates and clients addressed questions to male co-workers that should have been addressed to them.
  • So wrong: 87% reported having received demeaning comments from male colleagues.
  • And illegal: 75% were asked about marital status, family plans, and children during interviews.
  • Sexual harassment: 60% reported unwanted sexual come-ons with 65% of those advances coming from a superior.

Appalled? You should be. Remember, this survey was published in 2016, not decades ago.

So what went wrong at Uber and why is it bad for business? On February 19, 2017, a former engineer with Uber, Susan Fowler, wrote a blog post outlining her treatment at Uber during the year she worked there. With her claims clearly described and well-documented, Fowler’s blog post kicked open the door on harassment and toxic work culture, not just in Silicon Valley, but in the tech industry workplace.

Responding quickly, Travis Kalanick, Uber CEO, established an internal investigation. Kalanick brought in Uber board member Arianna Huffington and former US Attorney General Eric Holder to lead a review of any HR dysfunction at the company.

According to Reuters, Kalanick referred to Fowler’s claims as “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” It is ironic that the Uber brand is based on trust—of passengers and drivers.

While there are laws against harassment, and policies in place to protect against it, too often the only realistic option is the one Fowler chose—find another job and leave the bad memories behind. Safely in another door, Fowler was able to publicly share the seamy circumstances she endured—and documented—throughout her tenure with Uber.

Yet, for many women, there isn’t another high-paying job in the wings, and the explicitly discriminatory working conditions—even in 2017—continue. Holding onto a job is critical for most, and staying quiet long enough to get a good reference is often the only way out—even at the cost of enduring continued harassment.

Uber’s current situation offers us a cautionary tale of a young, aggressive, seemingly successful company with an inadequate HR structure and practices. Reflecting and building those core competencies is the task at hand for Uber, and for companies with similar issues.

Regardless of its other achievements, Uber—and its brand—are tainted by scandal. In an era when hiring top talent is only getting more competitive, Uber will be hard-pressed to sell its now noteworthy toxic company culture. With effort and expense, the company may yet emerge with shiny, strong policies that instill transparency into its HR practices.

Better still, as reported by The New York Times, Huffington has stated “there would no longer be hiring of ‘brilliant jerks.’”



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