By now, a lot of us have read Susan Fowler’s tale of her year at Uber. It’s certainly not the first time Uber’s been accused of misconduct, and to be honest, the only thing that was surprising in Fowler’s post was just how institutionalized this behavior was, and just how hard so many different people at the company work to defend it. Fowler’s post describes a company that is being run wrong in just about every way imaginable, and it seems Uber’s most noteworthy success is not having been sued out of existence already.
Probably the thing that immediately stood out to me at least was how wildly incompetent Uber’s personnel department was. Just about every opportunity they had to make a decision resulted in them making the wrong one, and in fact some of the things they told Fowler are just objectively wrong (a negative performance review because the manager was reported to the personnel department is retaliation, which is illegal, regardless of if she was offered a chance to transfer away from the team or not). In fact, I have to even wonder if this was the primary job of the people Fowler was dealing with.
It’s really easy to think of the personnel department as the department in charge of recruiting and answering questions about benefits. However, just spend some time talking with someone who’s been a professional in the personnel space for years and you very quickly realize there’s a lot more to the field than that. Even ignoring keeping up with labor laws (which the personnel department at Uber clearly hasn’t done), there’s also the issue of dealing with problematic employees. When discussing Fowler’s experiences on This Week in Google, there was a brief discussion about whether the personnel department should be there to protect the company or protect the employees, as if they were mutually exclusive objectives in this case. They aren’t – you protect the company by firing managers committing sexual harassment (which, not coincidentally, also protects employees). Any full-time, professional, “real” personnel department would have known that, and fired this guy the first time it happened., which makes me wonder if “personnel stuff” is an add-on for somebody’s job responsibility list and not their full-time profession.
Fowler’s blog post underscores why having a professional personnel department is important. And by “professional personnel department”, I mean a department that focuses exclusively on workplace and employee issues. I’ve worked at startups that contracted out their HR work to someone who was only in the office once or twice a week, and I’ve worked in places where HR seemed to be mostly recruiters, and someone who handled benefits and open enrollment. If you’re a startup that’s largely focused on growth and offering benefits to employees, that makes sense. But there’s going to come a point where someone’s going to have a very serious issue, and when that happens you need a team that has the experience and knowledge to handle it.
By all accounts, Uber was well past the size of needing a full-time, professional personnel department, which begs the question – was their HR still in part-time, just focusing on hiring and benefits mode? Or (and this is even scarier), were they just that incompetent? Neither is excusable for Uber at this point. Even without a “real” personnel department they had to know that the appropriate response to harassment isn’t to let the harasser stay, tell the employee reporting it that any blowback isn’t retaliation, and threaten them for documenting interactions with (and the results from interacting with) the personnel team.
The first thing Uber’s personnel department needs to understand is that nobody should be irreplaceable. I don’t mean this in the sense that businesses should view their employees as interchangeable and disposable, but rather understand that you can’t afford to have employees that you can’t afford to lose. It’s a recipe for disaster, since it’s only a matter of time before they leave the company. The only non-terrible version of that is that it’s via retirement after decades of service, but that’s highly unlikely. Even if they’re a model employee, there’s still the pending issue where they’re going to leave the company at some point and you need to be ready to replace them.
Of course, that’s the best-case scenario for your “irreplaceable” employee. There’s also the case (and it certainly sounds like Uber encouraged this case), of the employee who know’s they’re considered “irreplaceable”, and acts like it. There’s a reason why a manager could feel comfortable propositioning a direct subordinate – and that’s because they know the company is too scared to fire them. That employee is now actively doing harm to your business. If you really want to insist on keeping them, then you need to be able to clearly articulate what good they’re doing that outweighs the legal liability they’re exposing you to. Given that the manager in Fowler’s blog post was able to behave this way repeatedly just compounds the problem – harass enough people and he’s opened Uber a possible class action suit. I don’t care how “top” a performer somebody is, nobody does so much good for an organization that it outweighs that kind of damage. In these situations, you have to be able to cut somebody loose for the sake of the company (and its employees), and the people working for your company have to know that.
At this point, if Fowler and her former co-workers ever decided to sue Uber, the best possible ending for the suit would be to just give the class (and it’d be a class-action suit) everything they’re asking for in the initial claim. Trying to defend the company and how it behaves is just going to mean the suit gets reported on (thanks to lawsuits being matters of public record), along with Fowler’s documentation being printed as well as any internal Uber documents confirming her allegations. All of that is just going to make things worse for Uber, as hard as that is to imagine.
It’s not just the harassment that shouldn’t have been tolerated at Uber. Fowler documents multiple instances of backstabbing and other forms of office politics that sacrificed the best interests of Uber for personal advancement. Based on Fowler’s description, this wasn’t something that the company leadership could realistically have been blind to – they were either the victims of their subordinates undermining them, they got to where they were by screwing their previous boss, or they watched their underlings do it. None of these options can be considered remotely acceptable in any business. If your job is to ensure the success of a business, and you have people undermining the initiatives to make that business successful, those people are a cancer to your organization and need to be removed immediately if you want to stay in business. The fact that these employees not only were able to stick around, but move up in the organization, implies that HR is the least of Uber’s problems.
The most damning part about all of these issues within Uber is that the attitudes behind them come directly from the company culture, and culture comes straight from the top. The idea that people can sexually harass co-workers without consequence, and that it’s OK to lie about how many times it’s happened? Not even an amateur HR department would do that without being told to do so by senior leadership within the company. Threatening employees with retaliation for reporting repeated harassment, even telling them that retaliation from their managers is allowed? That’s a product of pettiness all throughout the leadership structure. Employees moving up the ranks by screwing over their co-workers? That’s the type of thing rewarded by leaders who just want to get theirs while the getting’s still there. Make no mistake, as terrible as the HR department at Uber is, the toxicity that’s pervading the company is created, nurtured, and encouraged by the people at the very top of the Uber, and it’s never going to get better without them leaving.
Judging by the reaction of Uber’s board, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. They seem to be under the impression that impression that Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, is nothing more than a “scrappy entrepreneur” who needs “leadership training.” That’s a fantasy. Uber already lost a president over the fact that the taint is deeply embedded at the company. The fact that the behavior documented in Fowler’s blog post could even be considered at a company at the scale at which it was apparently carried out makes it clear that something is foundationally wrong at Uber, and Kalanick laid that foundation. Fixing these problems is going to require a new CEO, not some classes or mentoring sessions for Kalanick. Somebody new needs to take over, and their reign needs to start with a purge of anybody who so much as had a happy thought about the management philosophies of Travis Kalanick.
There are serious problems with Uber, and it’s symptomatic in the way its employees behave and Uber’s response to the misconduct. Contrary to the optimism of a board hoping they’ll all fade away in time for the IPO, the reality is Uber is self-destructive, both in terms of the legal liability it’s exposing itself to via the rampart harassment and discrimination, as well as the extensive tooling they had to avoid dealing with government regulators (which I didn’t even have time to go into with this post). These problems are too deeply ingrained into who the company is to be fixed by new policies and tutorials on how to be a better manager. Barring major changes in leadership, specifically, who is leading the company, it’s only a matter of time before Uber implodes. The only questions left unanswered are will the new CEO’s attempt to fundamentally transform who Uber is as a company be too late to save it from itself?