Lessons for Employers from Uber’s Nightmare Start to 2017

Uber sexual harassment

To say that it has been a rough start to 2017 for the ride-sharing company Uber would be putting it mildly. A pioneer of the ride sharing economy, estimated by some to be worth $66 billion, Uber has encountered one headline-grabbing problem after another since January 1st.

There is, for example, the trade secret lawsuit brought by Google and triggered by Uber’s acquisition of the self-driving automobile technology company Otto, which was founded by a former Google employee. In February, the New York Times revealed details of Uber’s Greyball program that it allegedly used to deceive authorities and law enforcement in jurisdictions where Uber was banned. After taking an Uber home from a Super Bowl party, CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on video arguing with the driver. The company can’t seem to hang onto talented executives, either.

Then there is the blog post written by a former Uber employee that described her experiences working for the company in some detail. They were concerning, to say the least, and Uber’s approach to handling complaints of discrimination and harassment should serve as a roadmap for other employers on what not to do.

Employment at Uber: A Pattern of Willfully Turning a Blind Eye

Susan Fowler joined Uber in late 2015 as a site reliability engineer. After initial training, she was added to a team of other engineers – and on her first day was allegedly propositioned by her new manager via the company’s internal chat system. She took screenshots of his messages and reported them to HR.

Fowler alleges that, rather than acting on the issue, she was told by HR that she could either find another team or stay on the current one working for the same manager but “would have to understand that he would most likely give [her] a poor performance review and there was nothing they could do about it.” HR said this would not be retaliation because she had been provided with the choice to leave that team. She was also told the manager had been given a “stern talking to” and the company didn’t want to ruin his career over his “first offense.”

Fowler left that team, joined another, and soon found out that she was far from the first woman to have reported that manager to HR. In fact, many had reported him before she joined. All of them had allegedly been given the same choices, and told the “first offense” story. After Fowler left the manager’s team, another woman reported him to HR for similar behavior. At that point, the issue had been “escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated” but there was no action from management.

This was not the only issue Fowler confronted at Uber. After receiving glowing performance evaluations, her request to transfer to another team was blocked for no apparent reason. When she followed it up she was told her review had been changed and she no longer qualified for a transfer. Later, she found out the real reason: she made her manager look good so he blocked her transfer. “I overheard him boasting to the rest of the team that even though the rest of the teams were losing their women engineers left and right, he still had some on his team,” she wrote.

Things did not get much better, and Fowler eventually had a meeting with HR to discuss the fact that she kept reporting allegedly sexist or harassing behavior to HR. Even though every report she made came with “extensive documentation” and followed accepted protocols, “The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that *I* was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making, and that if I had ever considered that I might be the problem.”

That meeting was followed by one with her own manager who said she was “on thin ice” for reporting another executive to HR and reminded her that California is an at-will employment state, “which means we can fire you if you ever do this again.” She told him that was illegal, and reported the conversation to HR, but nothing was done – allegedly because the manager who threatened Fowler was “a high performer.”

A week later, Fowler had a new job offer and left Uber. Her post about her year working for the company quickly went viral.

The Uber Takeaway: Treat Complaints of Harassment and Discrimination Seriously

In the wake of Fowler’s post, Uber announced it had hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to run an internal investigation into how the company handles complaints of discrimination and harassment. By that point, however, the matter was headline news, had done significant damage to the company’s reputation, and likely made it a potential target for employment litigation.

Uber is famous for its disruptive behavior, and seems to have taken that same careless disregard for established rules and procedures into how it manages employees. That is not, however, something an employer can do, as exemplified by Susan Fowler’s experience.

Employers must take all complaints of harassment and discrimination seriously, particularly if an employee provides strong documentation, as Fowler seems to have done with Uber’s HR department. Complaints should be investigated and action taken if found to be true. Crucially, investigations should happen as complaints happen and not only after the situation gets so out of hand that the company is forced to do so.

Performance reviews and promotions must also be handled in a consistent, equitable fashion. There should be checks and balances in place to ensure a manager with a grudge – or a hidden agenda for personal advancement – cannot derail the career paths of the people he or she manages.

Uber also seems to have valued productive employees over providing a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment. While care should be taken not to damage another employee’s reputation on the basis of unproven allegations, companies likewise cannot give a pass to someone simply because they are valuable to the bottom line. Abusive or predatory employees cannot be allowed free reign under any circumstances. There is just too much liability for the company – and the impact on other employees is potentially too damaging.

Finally, Uber is a compelling case for why all employers must have policies and procedures that are clearly laid out in employee manuals – and then followed consistently. If Susan Fowler’s HR rep and managers had followed the rules, she would have likely remained a happy, productive Uber employee – and never written her blog post.

Posted in Employment Law.