Uber is in full-on crisis mode.
When former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a blog posting titled, “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber” on Feb. 19, did she expect to shake the company to its core? Whatever her ultimate intentions, her account of sexual harassment, HR cover-ups, and managerial retaliation sparked a wave of protest online, including the revival of the #deleteuber hashtag on Twitter. Even some of Uber’s earliest investors are publicly angry.
At a recent all-hands meeting about sexism at the company, CEO Travis Kalanick reportedly teared up as he promised a full investigation into Fowler’s claims. In a follow-up email, he wrote that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would head up that inquiry, along with board member Arianna Huffington and HR head Liane Hornsey.
In the past few days, some customers deleting the Uber app have received a message referring to the recent controversy. “Everyone at Uber is deeply hurting after reading Susan Fowler’s blog post,” the company’s confirmation email reads in part. “What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” The rest details the internal investigation:
If things weren’t intense enough, The New York Times chose this week to publish a story titled, “Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture.” The workplace described in that piece is a hive of backstabbing, violent threats, homophobic slurs, and frat-house antics. “We are totally committed to healing wounds of the past and building a better workplace culture for everyone,” Hornsey wrote in a statement to the newspaper.
(A good Recode story also breaks down the alleged problems within the company, including a lack of leadership coaching and training.)
A bad workplace culture, of course, may drive away the engineers and other tech pros that Uber needs if it wants to stay ahead of some aggressive competition. Uber believes that its future lies in autonomous vehicles, a technology segment already targeted by Google, Tesla, and various automobile companies. Without highly skilled employees, Uber will not succeed in that arena. And as multiple studies have shown, a good workplace culture greatly influences over whether such folks come aboard (and stay there).
In addition to the investigation, what else can the company do to repair the situation with its employees and customers? That remains an open question at the moment, although Lance Ulanoff at Mashable offers five suggestions, including a purge of managers and HR staffers. And speaking of HR, Uber will likely need to prepare for pointed questions from candidates during job interviews about its policies.