Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture

Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture

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“It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job,” Ms. Fowler wrote. “No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: They boasted about it in meetings, told their direct reports about it, and the like.”

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, has taken several steps since a former employee’s accusations of discrimination and sexual harassment by managers.

Credit
Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Her revelations have spurred hand-wringing over how unfriendly Silicon Valley workplaces can be to women and provoked an internal crisis at Uber. The company’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, has opened an internal investigation into the accusations and has brought in the board member Arianna Huffington and the former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. to look into harassment issues and the human resources department.

To contain the fallout, Mr. Kalanick also began more disclosure. On Monday, he said that 15.1 percent of Uber’s engineering, product management and scientist roles were filled by women, and that those numbers had not changed substantively over the past year.

Mr. Kalanick also held a 90-minute all-hands meeting on Tuesday, during which he and other executives were besieged with dozens of questions and pleas from employees who were aghast at — or strongly identified with — Ms. Fowler’s story and demanded change.

In what was described by five attendees as an emotional moment, and according to a video of the meeting reviewed by The New York Times, Mr. Kalanick apologized to employees for leading the company and the culture to this point. “What I can promise you is that I will get better every day,” he said. “I can tell you that I am authentically and fully dedicated to getting to the bottom of this.”

Some Uber employees said Mr. Kalanick’s speedy efforts were positive. “I am pleased with how quickly Travis has responded to this,” Aimee Lucido, an Uber software engineer, wrote in a blog post. “We are better situated to handle this sort of problem than we have ever been in the past.”

As chief executive, Mr. Kalanick has long set the tone for Uber. Under him, Uber has taken a pugnacious approach to business, flouting local laws and criticizing competitors in a race to expand as quickly as possible. Mr. Kalanick, 40, has made pointed displays of ego: In a GQ article in 2014, he referred to Uber as “Boob-er” because of how the company helped him attract women.



OPEN Document

Document: Internal Memo From Uber’s Chief, Travis Kalanick


That tone has been echoed in Uber’s workplace. At least two former Uber workers said they had notified Thuan Pham, the company’s chief technical officer, of workplace harassment at the hands of managers and colleagues in 2016. One also emailed Mr. Kalanick.

Uber also faces at least three lawsuits in at least two countries from former employees alleging sexual harassment or verbal abuse at the hands of managers, according to legal documents reviewed by The Times. Other current and former employees said they were considering legal action against the company.

Liane Hornsey, Uber’s chief human resources officer, said in a statement, “We are totally committed to healing wounds of the past and building a better workplace culture for everyone.”

Uber’s aggressive culture began with its 2009 founding, when Mr. Kalanick and another founder, Garrett Camp, created a start-up that would let customers hail a cab with little more than a few taps of their smartphone — bypassing many of the headaches people had with the taxi industry. Mr. Kalanick also started putting into place what eventually became Uber’s 14 core values, inspired by the leadership principles at one of the biggest public tech companies, Amazon.

To grow quickly, Uber kept its structure decentralized, emphasizing autonomy among regional offices. General managers are encouraged to “be themselves,” another of Uber’s core values, and are empowered to make decisions without intense supervision from the company’s San Francisco headquarters. The top priority: Achieve growth and revenue targets.

While Uber is now the dominant ride-hailing company in the United States, and is rapidly growing in South America, India and other countries, its explosive growth has come at a cost internally. As Uber hired more employees, its internal politics became more convoluted. Getting ahead, employees said, often involved undermining departmental leaders or colleagues.

Arianna Huffington, an Uber board member, was brought in to look into harassment issues and the human resources department.

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Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Workers like Ms. Fowler who went to human resources with their problems said they were often left stranded. She and a half-dozen others said human resources often made excuses for top performers because of their ability to improve the health of the business. Occasionally, problematic managers who were the subject of numerous complaints were shuffled around different regions; firings were less common.

One group appeared immune to internal scrutiny, the current and former employees said. Members of the group, called the A-Team and composed of executives who were personally close to Mr. Kalanick, were shielded from much accountability over their actions.

One member of the A-Team was Emil Michael, senior vice president for business, who was caught up in a public scandal over comments he made in 2014 about digging into the private lives of journalists who opposed the company. Mr. Kalanick defended Mr. Michael, saying he believed Mr. Michael could learn from his mistakes.

Uber’s aggressive workplace culture spilled out at a global all-hands meeting in late 2015 in Las Vegas, where the company hired Beyoncé to perform at the rooftop bar of the Palms Hotel. Between bouts of drinking and gambling, Uber employees used cocaine in the bathrooms at private parties, said three attendees, and a manager groped several female employees. (The manager was terminated within 12 hours.) One employee hijacked a private shuttle bus, filled it with friends and took it for a joy ride, the attendees said.

At the Las Vegas outing, Mr. Kalanick also held a companywide lecture reviewing Uber’s 14 core values, the attendees said. During the lecture, Mr. Kalanick pulled onstage employees who he believed exemplified each of the values. One of those was Mr. Michael.

Since Ms. Fowler’s blog post, several Uber employees have said they are considering leaving the company. Some are waiting until their equity compensation from Uber, which is restricted stock units, is vested. Others said they had started sending résumés to competitors.

Still other employees said they were hopeful that Uber could change. Mr. Kalanick has promised to deliver a diversity report to better detail the number of women and minorities who work at Uber, and the company is holding listening sessions with employees.

At the Tuesday all-hands meeting, Ms. Huffington, the Uber board member, also vowed that the company would make another change. According to attendees and video of the meeting, Ms. Huffington said there would no longer be hiring of “brilliant jerks.”

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