Uber Responds to Sex-Harassment Allegations

Thom Weidlich 02.23.17


This week’s big corporate crisis is Uber Technologies Inc.’s sex-harassment scandal, which has important lessons for crisis communicators. While the ride-hailing company is getting kudos for its response (we mostly concur), the very existence of the mess shows the need for in-house systems and monitoring to detect problems before they blow up into major crises.

On Sun., Feb. 19, ex-Uber software engineer Susan J. Fowler published a blog post entitled “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” Fowler wrote that after only a few weeks after her start there, she had been propositioned by her manager over the company’s chat-messaging system. Human resources and management told her that, because it was the manager’s first offense, he would be given only a warning. HR’s attitude was otherwise appalling.

Over the next months, other women engineers told Fowler similar stories, including about the manager — it wasn’t his first offense. She and some other women went to HR but felt they were lied to again and again.

Another theme of Fowler’s post is the loss of women engineers in the company — her own group went from 25 percent women when she joined down to 6 percent when she was trying to transfer out, she wrote. She also excoriated Uber’s cut-throat culture.

The company’s response was swift.

The day of Fowler’s post, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted, “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in.” The next day, Kalanick emailed employees that the company hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm to investigate Fowler’s accusations about the company’s culture and diversity.

‘Flippant Attitude’

On Tue., Feb. 21, Kalanick held an all-hands meeting at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. According to reports, Kalanick cried and apologized to employees for the situation Fowler described. The employees were surprised at how sincere Kalanick seemed and how seriously he took the allegations, according to The Verge. “Part of Uber’s problem seems to be its flippant attitude toward human resources,” the tech site wrote.

So all-in-all Uber seems to be responding appropriately. For one thing, it’s made no effort to deny Fowler’s allegations (at least yet). “There are strong indications that Uber is taking this extremely seriously,” Joan C. Williams, professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, told Brian Lehrer yesterday on his radio show on WNYC in New York.

But the question is how did the company let this get so out of control?

Williams, an expert in workplace law, said Uber should have immediately investigated Fowler’s sexual-harassment allegations. In other words, HR — which should be a conduit for crisis warning signals — instead was the nexus of the crisis.

Fowler made no mention of intending to sue, but this is just the type of situation companies do get sued over — and given that other women complained it could be major litigation. “You’re putting the company’s wallet at risk and you’re putting the company’s reputation at risk,” Williams said.

So that’s where Uber fell short. Happily, it appears to be trying to make up for that now.

Photo Credit: Uber

Related:Uber Report Shows the Need for Detailed Procedures to Prevent Crises