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Reform is hard.
Uber took a series of steps this week to reform its corporate culture, including setting in motion an indefinite leave of absence for founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, firing nearly two dozen employees (including a top deputy to Kalanick), overhauling the company’s stated values, implementing mandatory manager training, and establishing a more independent board of directors.
And yet there remains plenty of skepticism among observers in Silicon Valley who feel it may not be enough. They argue that the attitudes that led to sexual harassment accusations and other workplace complaints are so deeply embedded in Uber’s DNA — where “toe-stepping” was literally written into the cultural values — that much more work will be needed to see the reform through.
Evidence for that skepticism emerged during the all-hands meeting to discuss Kalanick’s leave and the 12 pages of recommendations from former U.S. District Attorney Eric Holder.
According to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by Yahoo Finance, Uber’s chief HR officer, Liane Hornsey, told the assembled staff to “stand up and give each other a hug” — a suggestion that might be a bonding exercise at a company retreat but struck many as inappropriate in view of the report’s focus on sexual harassment. Hornsey had previously drawn criticism for comments downplaying the degree of sexism in Uber’s culture.
But the situation took a turn for the worse when board member Arianna Huffington was discussing the appointment of Wan Ling Martello as an independent board member. “There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” Huffington said.
Another board member, David Bonderman of TPG Capital, then interjected: “Actually, what it shows is it’s much likely to be more talking.” Bonderman quickly issued an internal apology after the quote spread on social media. That leaked apology drew only skepticism, and he resigned from Uber’s board.
Bonderman’s comment suggests just how deeply entrenched such gender stereotypes are, not just in Uber but throughout much of Silicon Valley. As Uber works to disentangle such attitudes from its corporate culture, it must also struggle with the Valley’s obsession with the cult of the founder, which says a company’s spirit is built in large part around its creator (in this case, the sidelined Kalanick).
It’s one thing for startups to revamp their culture while still young, but a $70 billion company like Uber may have a tougher challenge ahead. Huffington drew some applause from employees (and eyerolls on Twitter) when she announced Uber’s “War Room” would be rechristened the “Peace Room.” At the meeting, several core values were also ritually sacrificed before the crowd, including “Always Be Hustlin’,” “Principled Confrontation,” and that one about stepping on toes.
In their place, the Holder report described Uber’s revised goal as “a workplace in which ‘all the great minds’ gather to work and succeed.”
One notable skeptic regarding the possibility of substantive change is Susan Fowler, whose February blog post ignited the controversy that Uber’s board is still working to extinguish. Shortly after her post appeared, Fowler said she thought she was a victim of a private investigation meant to smear her. Uber had previously engaged in such investigations against legal opponents and others.
On Tuesday, Fowler called the Holder report and the board’s embrace of its recommendations “all optics,” noting that she’s received no apology from Uber, only “aggressive hostility.”
Ha! Yeah, they'll never apologize. I've gotten nothing but aggressive hostility from them. It's all optics.
— Susan J. Fowler (@susanthesquark) June 13, 2017
Fowler had published her Medium post in the wake of a #DeleteUber social media campaign sparked by reports that Uber was profiting from a taxi strike in protest of President Trump’s travel ban. (Uber explained the fare hikes as normal surge pricing.) The two events marked a tipping point in the public’s perception of the company, culminating in the board’s actions this week.
In late February, following Fowler’s post, Uber held an all-hands meeting to discuss her accusations. Not long after, two early Uber investors, Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, published an open letter on Medium that wondered why other investors were remaining silent and cast doubt on the company’s willingness to change:
Uber has been here many times before, responding to public exposure of bad behavior by holding an all-hands meeting, apologizing and vowing to change, only to quickly return to aggressive business as usual.
Of course, that was before the tide of public sentiment had fully turned against the company. Now that Uber is responding more forcefully to several relentless months of bad press, questions about whether changes will go deep enough linger. How long it will take for public perception to shift in Uber’s favor will depend in good part on how serious it is about change.
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