Uber’s ambition, urgency and irreverence have helped it expand into more than 300 cities worldwide and secure a valuation of over $60 billion in record time. But its obsession with growth has seen several principles fall by the wayside. An excoriating blog post by a former employee reveals a culture of pettiness, sexism, deception, injustice, victim blaming and backstabbing, ignored by managers more concerned with retaining talent and accelerating the top line.
Susan Fowler, who worked as a site reliability engineer at Uber from November 2015 to December 2016, writes that a manager propositioned her within hours of her joining his team. But as he was a 'high performer' and it was his first offence, HR and upper management only felt comfortable giving him a stern warning. Meanwhile, Fowler was effectively forced to leave her team. Staying would likely lead to a negative performance review, she was told, and it wouldn't be retaliation as she had been given the option of changing teams.
Later, Fowler spoke to colleagues who reported the same individual for inappropriate behaviour, and were also told it was his 'first offence'. But when they booked meetings with HR, Fowler was told “he had never been reported before, he had only ever committed one offense (in his chats with me), and that none of the other women who they met with had anything bad to say about him, so no further action could or would be taken.”
Uber’s protection of its most talented employees is a recurring theme. Fowler complained to HR again after a director promised to give leather jackets to the 120-odd engineers in her organisation, but excluded the six women because their jackets, without a bulk-buying discount, would be slightly more expensive. The director told her that if women "really wanted equality", they should be happy not to receive pricier jackets than their male coworkers.
In her subsequent meeting with HR, Fowler was asked whether she'd considered whether she might be the problem, as she was the common theme in her reports. When Fowler argued back, the rep lied that there were no records of her claims, but Fowler reminded her that she kept email and chat records.
Next, the rep tried to pry into how she and her fellow women engineers communicated. When Fowler highlighted the lack of women on her team, she suggested that "people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others". Finally, she criticised Fowler for keeping records and reporting incidents to HR by email.
Days later, Fowler’s manager told her she was on “very thin ice” for reporting the director to HR, and threatened to fire her if she did it again, denying that doing so would be illegal. She reported the threat to HR and Uber’s technology chief, who both agreed it was illegal but declined to do anything. Fowler learned why later: the manager was a ‘high performer’.
Fowler details other nightmarish experiences. She attempted to transfer to another engineering group, but her move was blocked due to “undocumented performance problems” that management could only vaguely explain. When she tried again after receiving a great performance review, she was told her score had been lowered and she was no longer eligible for a transfer due to a lack of career development – despite her publishing a book and speaking at several major conferences. The negative review meant she was no longer eligible for Uber’s sponsorship of her graduate studies at Stanford. She later overheard her manager boasting that he still had a woman on his team, and realised her transfer was blocked so he could keep her for bragging rights.
Fowler highlights a host of other problems at Uber. When she asked a director how he planned to address the exodus of women engineers - the percentage of women on her team fell from 25% when she joined to 3% by the time she left - he implied they needed to do a better job. She also writes her organisation was in a state of "complete, unrelenting chaos", with managers undermining each other and trying to usurp their superiors.
Her potent blog post has dealt yet another blow to Uber's reputation. In January, the company was accused of breaking a taxi drivers’ strike and allying with Donald Trump after it removed surge pricing at JFK International Airport during the president’s travel ban. Uber boss Travis Kalanick also joined Trump’s business advisory council, but stepped down weeks later. Droves of customers have protested the company's actions by deleting its app from their smartphones, undoubtedly hampering its growth rate.
After Fowler's claims went viral, Kalanick issued a statement denouncing the behaviour she described, and revealed that just over 15% of Uber's technical staff are women - a smaller percentage than at Facebook and Google. He's also hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Fowler's claims and review the company's broader diversity and inclusion. And he apologised to employees yesterday for Uber’s shortcomings and failure to to address employees’ complaints.
Another woman engineer at Uber recently weighed in on Fowler's claims. "If the world, and Uber specifically, takes one thing away from this, it should be that this is not an isolated incident," wrote Aimee Lucido. "I think this is disgusting and appalling and horrifying and yet I am not surprised at all. In fact, I’m most surprised at how surprised everyone else seems to be."
Uber has revolutionised the travel industry and pioneered the gig economy, empowering drivers to work their own hours – albeit without the usual perks and protections of traditional employment. But realising its true potential will require more than growing its user base or raising its market valuation: it must prove it respects and values all of its employees.