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What Companies Can Learn From the Uber Sexual Harassment Investigation

Published: Jul 21, 2017 in Employment Law, Sexual Harassment

A popular news trend is focusing on gender inequality in Silicon Valley and within today’s tech start-up culture. Broadly speaking, this area is dominated by men, but the same could be said of more traditional industries. The difference is that, since tech firms have grown from the labors of the latest generations, these firms should reflect more modern ideals when it comes to gender roles and equality.

No firm embodies the issue as much as Uber, the ride-hailing company whose outspoken (and often rambunctious) CEO, Travis Kalanick, has made headlines over his insensitive comments, and even a controversial email he once sent to all of his staff regarding partying and hookups. Now, an Uber sexual harassment investigation is becoming something of a case study in how a tech firm can turn around not just its policies and workplace culture, but its public image when it comes to sexism.

Investigations Into Uber Workplace Reveals Toxic Sexism

Susan Fowler, a former Uber Engineer, wrote a blog post last year, detailing years of sexism at Uber, which culminated in her decision to resign. According to her account, she received unsolicited advances from a manager on her first day of work. Her complaint to Human Resources was not taken seriously. She complained again to HR over sexist comments in an email chain, which resulted in HR suggesting that she might be the problem.

She certainly has been a problem to Uber’s sexist workplace culture. Her blog post went viral, and prompted Uber to hire not one but two law firms to investigate both specific incidents of harassment and culture issues within upper management. The law firms released reports this summer that has revealed an almost unbelievably hostile workplace for women.

For example, sexually aggressive managers were not punished if they delivered strong performance. Some of these managers’ issues with harassment were well known, but HR would lie to employees who complained about their behavior, telling them that they were merely first offenders who should be given another chance.

Uber Fires 20 Employees Over Behavioral Issues

One of Uber’s law firms, Perkins Coie, investigated 215 instances of workplace violations. Out of these, the firm determined that 47 consisted in sexual harassment, 54 involved other forms of discrimination, and the rest reflected unprofessional behavior such as bullying, retaliation, and non-sexual forms of harassment.

The firm, which is still investigating around 50 cases, recommended that Uber take disciplinary action against many of the offending employees and managers. As a result, Uber has:

  • Ordered 31 employees to undergo workplace behavior counseling
  • Given final warnings to seven employees
  • Fired 20 employees, some of whom were senior executives

The results of the investigation and the disciplinary measures were announced during an “all hands” meeting of Uber’s 12,000 or so employees across the world. The company’s drivers–some of whom have been accused of sexually harassing riders–are independent contractors, and were not involved in the investigation

Can a Company Recover from Such a Sexual Harassment Scandal?

Firing offending employees is certainly a first step in addressing sexual harassment in a company, but Uber correctly realized that it would need to make broader organizational changes to address both its workplace culture and public image. In the wake of these terminations, Uber has hired new executives who might help the company reform itself:

  • Well-known management consultant Frances Frei, a Harvard Business School Professor who will take on the newly-created role of senior vice president for leadership and strategy
  • Former Apple executive Bozoma St. John, who will become chief brand officer (another newly created position)
  • Uber has also been searching for a new CEO to replace Travis Kalanick. The Uber head has publicly admitted that he needs help managing the company.

Can Other Companies Learn from Uber’s Mistakes–and its Steps to Address Them?

Probably the biggest task that Uber faces–and one that all companies should learn from–is turning its Human Resources department into a force that works for the benefit of its employees, as opposed to a screen that shields managers from their own unprofessional conduct.

Another tactic that other companies can learn from is how Uber swiftly hired outside legal counsel to conduct investigations into its own organization. This demonstrated an acknowledgment of the issue and a willingness to address it. But cynics will point out that the company made no effort to address its sexist culture until Susan Fowler published her bombshell blog post.

Sexual harassment occurs every day in thousands of workplaces across America. Most of these instances will go unpunished. Victims, who are often unaware of their legal rights, will go uncompensated. At The Cates Law Firm, we are dedicated to upholding the rights of people who face unjust treatment in the workplace–from sexual harassment to retaliation, to all forms of discrimination.

If you think you’ve suffered illegal treatment at work, call a Belleville sexual harassment lawyer today at (618) 767-6293 for a free consultation.