The media and the internet are abuzz this week about a blog post from an ex-Uber employee that goes into detail about the global drive-sharing company’s many problems, particularly its sexist culture. The blog author, engineer Susan J. Fowler, reserves her most bitter judgement for Uber’s HR department.
And, holy bananas, if her claims are true (if even half of them are true), her story is an example of what it looks like when HR gets every single step wrong.
According to her account, upon entering the company Fowler got her pick of engineering teams and chose the one that most aligned with her experience. On day one, her new manager sent her a series of text messages about the open relationship he had with his partner and how she was having more relations than he was.
“He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. 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,” she writes.
To her surprise, HR sided with the manager, saying that since this was his first infraction, and he was a good performer, they weren’t willing to do anything more than issue “a warning and a stern talking-to”. They gave her two options. She could move to another engineering team or stay where she was. They explained that if she chose the latter, she would likely receive a bad performance review, presumably because the manager would see it as a slight.
“One HR rep explicitly told me that it wouldn’t be retaliation if I received a negative review because I had been ‘given an option’. I tried to escalate the situation but got nowhere with either HR or with my own management chain.”
AHRI chairman Peter Wilson addressed this very topic recently when he talked about the ethical problems inherent when there is an imbalance in power in work relationships. He pointed out the obligation of HR to represent all employees regardless of status.
Despite trying to get HR and management to do the right thing, Fowler ended up moving to a different team. Over the next few months she learnt that other women in the company had made similar complaints about the manager, undermining HR’s narrative.
“Myself and a few of the women who had reported him in the past decided to schedule meetings with HR to insist that something be done. In my meeting, the rep I spoke with told me that he had never been reported before, he had only ever committed one offence (in his chats with me), and that none of the other women who they met with had anything bad to say about him, so no further action could or would be taken.”
(Want to know how to actually handle a workplace investigation? Read our guide.)
These are only some of the difficulties with HR Fowler mentions in her blog. But as broader evidence of the company’s sexist culture Fowler writes, “When I joined Uber, the organisation I was part of was more than a quarter made up of women. By the time I was trying to transfer out, this number had dropped down to less than 6%.”
Uber’s chief executive Travis Kalanick is aghast at the post, and is vowing to investigate its claims. He says, “We seek to make Uber a just workplace and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behaviour at Uber.”
It’s not too much to use the cliche here and suggest that this might be too little, too late. The famed Silicon Valley “frat boy culture” is again under the microscope, Fowler is now employed elsewhere and Uber’s problems with its workers, which used to be confined to its drivers, now seems to extend to its office staff. And all of this is taking place in a year where people are already turning on the drive-sharing company over its relationship with taxis, and Donald Trump.
But who knows, it’s an age of technical marvels. Uber is planning to someday automate all of its cars. Maybe it can do the same to its HR department.