Uber’s Toxic Workplace Culture

A company director shouting a homophobic slur at a subordinate during a meeting. A manager groping female co-workers’ breasts during a company retreat. A manager threatening to beat an underperforming employee’s head in with a baseball bat. All of these incidents — and more — are described in a fascinating front-page story on Uber’s workplace culture by New York Times reporter Mike Isaac, who based his story on interviews with 30 current and former employees of the ride-hailing service and reviews of internal emails, chat logs and tape-recorded meetings.

As you’ve probably heard, Uber found itself thrust into the spotlight after former employee Susan Fowler published a blog post last Sunday about her experiences working for the company. Fowler, an engineer, said she and other women were sexually harassed and discriminated against by her manager and little to nothing was done about it, even when she reported it to HR, because the manager was a “high performer.” (Fowler’s descriptions of her interactions with Uber’s HR department are particularly damning: For example, when she noted to an HR representative how few women were in her engineering department, the rep allegedly told her that she shouldn’t be surprised by the ratio of women in engineering because people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others.)

Fowler and other current and former Uber employees told Isaac that HR would excuse poor behavior by their bosses because the managers in question were top performers who benefited the health of the company. The company’s culture — set by Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick — emphasizes getting ahead at all costs, the sources told Isaac, even if it means undermining co-workers and supervisors. One group in particular that was shielded from accountability was “the A-Team,” the sources said, a group of executives close to Kalanick.

Since Fowler went public with her accusations, Kalanick has brought in former Attorney General Eric Holder and board member Arianna Huffington to conduct an independent investigation of the issues Fowler raised. He said the company would release a full diversity report shortly and that 15.1 percent of the engineering, product management and scientist roles at Uber were held by women and that that number “has not changed substantively in the last year.”

In a statement to the Times, Uber CHRO Liane Hornsey said “We are totally committed to healing wounds of the past and building a better workplace culture for everyone.”

Hornsey, who joined Uber in January (its former HR chief, Rene Atwood, left in July to join Twitter) and who will assist with the investigation, spent nine years as Google’s vice president of global people operations. Hopefully she’ll be able to put her experience and expertise to good use at a company that appears to sorely need it.