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Anatomy of an Uber Apology

Looks like Uber messed up — again

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

On Sunday, Susan Fowler published a horrifying account of the rampant sexism she said she encountered while working as an engineer at Uber. The details of her allegations — which ranged from sexual harassment to systematic sabotage — are distressing to anyone who expects a company to treat its employees like human beings. Even Fowler still can’t quite process what she said she experienced: “And when I think about the things I’ve recounted … I feel a lot of sadness, but I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was,” she wrote. “Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.”

It is never not strange when an employer allegedly declines to fire a manager after he reportedly propositioned his underling for sex. But if true, it makes sense given Fowler’s former employer. Uber is a global startup that is worth over $60 billion and run by Travis Kalanick, a man who has compared his company’s struggle with government regulations to that of Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. (Here’s the only Fountainhead CliffsNotes you need: Government bad. Money good.) He is a leader who sees virtue in corporate greed, and — whether explicitly or not — has instilled a business-first, humans-second philosophy into seemingly every aspect of his company. In his quest to tighten Uber’s tentacles around the global market as quickly as possible, there have been many victims: unionized taxi drivers, overworked contractors, unprotected passengers, and now, based on Fowler’s account, female employees.

But even if Kalanick is a Randboy, he is not dumb. He and his PR team know that the company can’t be as outwardly blow-it-all-to-pieces libertarian as, say, Peter Thiel. And so, a strategy has emerged over the years: Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. The Uber apology is a staple in the tech news cycle. And Kalanick swooped in with one on Sunday afternoon, sharing Fowler’s post on Twitter and writing: “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired. I’ve instructed our CHRO Liane to conduct an urgent investigation. There can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber.”

Kalanick’s response was swift and appropriate. Hopefully it will be the beginning of structural changes within the company. But it is also a standard entry in a slew of unapologetic apologies that have carried the company through a handful of scandals over the years. How does the company construct statements that acknowledge a controversy but also shirk responsibility for it? A helpful guide:

Step 1: Say That What Happened Was Bad

There’s some wiggle room in terms of adjective choice here. Past examples include but are not limited to: “imperfect,” “horrific,” “abhorrent,” “tough,” and “terrible.” For news stories that directly involve the actions of Kalanick, jump directly to Step 2.

Step 2: Lay Out a Circuitous Denial

Mid-statement, introduce another culpable party.* For instance, if your company fails to carry out proper background checks on someone with past accusations of rape in India, be sure to subtweet the government’s responsibility in the scandal, too. If you can blame a sexist ad on the marketing company you hired, go for it.

Another option is to simultaneously downplay the stakes of a controversy while also condemning it. For instance, if a well-placed executive is caught plotting an opposition-research unit to get revenge on the press, simply explain that he doesn’t even work in the company’s communications department.

*A proven exception: Justifying collaboration with Donald Trump by naming other people who are willing to work with Donald Trump. (This does not work.)

Step 3: Say You Are Actually Good

Use the public statement that’s meant to acknowledge your flaws to instead highlight your strengths. Words like “progress” and “inspire” are safe go-tos. Be sure to reference your values without specifically outlining how you plan to adhere to them. Express a general sense of pride in your employees.

Step 4: Make a Vague Pledge

Sometimes your pledge is as easy as canceling a partnership (like with Avions de Chasse), and other times you have to create one (like in New Delhi). Internal investigations can be deemed “urgent” but assigned no public timeline. If you do not want to fire someone, you don’t have to.

Step 5: Repeat