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Finally, Uber’s Atonement Begins

After weeks — years, even — of scandalous headlines, the ridesharing company has to own up to its toxic culture

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

Last week, amid a typical onslaught of stories that underscored Uber’s alarming frat-boy culture, a telling anecdote emerged. To deal with the stress of his company’s ongoing internal investigation into sexual harassment allegations, CEO Travis Kalanick had taken to meditating in Uber’s lactation room. Board member Arianna Huffington may have thought that mentioning Kalanick’s new habit during a CNBC interview was a good way to humanize him, to make him sound mature. Instead, her story exemplified all that was wrong with Kalanick and his business, valued at an unprecedented $70 billion. It’s not just that the company grew too fast, as its PR machine has often tried to suggest. It’s that he and his leadership team never had the self-awareness or sensitivity required to shape an inclusive workplace culture.

Last week’s headlines continued, revealing that in 2013 Kalanick wrote a bro-y email to his staff offering coworker sex guidelines ahead of a company party, lamenting that he could not partake. In 2014, Uber executive Eric Alexander doubted the story of a customer who was raped by a driver, obtained her medical records, and showed them to Kalanick. He was fired only after the story leaked. Uber also let go of 20 people after a law firm investigated claims of sexual harassment and workplace malpractice. It was enough to push the Financial Times, of all publications, to call for the CEO’s firing: “One day we will look back at what will hopefully be the smouldering wreckage of Kalanick’s career and ask how a person so lacking in basic human and corporate ethics was allowed to run a company for so long.”

That day appears to have come, although his departure isn’t a firing. Kalanick told staff Tuesday that he will step down as CEO for an indefinite “leave of absence” to grieve his mother (who recently died in a boating accident). Whenever he chooses to return, the board will divvy up his responsibilities with a chief operating officer who has yet to be named, significantly reducing his power over of the company. Kalanick gets to come back, as long as he has a babysitter.

All of these actions were taken in compliance with a 13-page list of recommendations made by former attorney general Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán, partners at Covington & Burling. Uber hired the law firm to investigate the company’s workplace culture after former employee Susan Fowler wrote a viral blog post about the rampant gender discrimination and sexual harassment she says she underwent while working at the company. On Sunday, the company board voted unanimously to accept the document’s suggestions, meaning that Uber will now begin the long and complicated process of enacting them, as a handful of major leadership positions remain unfilled.

Reading between the lines of the report’s formal language, it’s clear that the core values Kalanick preached were antithetical to a welcoming, safe office culture. In addition to recommending Uber establish record-keeping and accountability systems that would better ensure that human-resources complaints don’t languish and implement more diverse recruitment tactics, the law firm specifically expresses concern over the people occupying senior staff positions at the company. Not only does it call for these employees to receive additional leadership training, but it criticizes the principles on which Kalanick founded the company. “Uber should reformulate its written cultural values because it is vital that they reflect more inclusive and positive behaviors,” reads one part of the report, going on to suggest that Uber should “eliminate those values which have been identified as redundant or as having been used to justify poor behavior, including Let Builders Build, Always Be Hustlin’, Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping, and Principled Confrontation.” How fitting that, amid all of the reasonable improvements Uber is being asked to make, the law firm has also politely suggested Uber abandon the once-sacred, Silicon Valley–centric workplace proclamations it was built on.

The irony is that even if Covington & Burling’s recommendations strip Uber of its toxic culture, they have failed in eliminating the man who was often its source. Kalanick’s leave of absence is a weak and unserious punishment, a half-hearted timeout that communicates the priorities of the tech industry. No matter how sophomoric, heteronormative, and offensive he may be, his ability to make investors money has preserved his clout and position in Silicon Valley.

Kalanick may be wounded, but he will come out of this just fine. He’ll disappear for a few months, do a juice cleanse, grow a regretful beard, and take up an appropriately Zen hobby, like paddleboarding. When he returns to his position as CEO, he will likely do so with a vivid story of personal transformation that will be teased out on a reputable magazine cover (something like this). And even if it’s unclear what level of power he may wield over the company, even if the board has hired a Harvard University expert on corporate cultural transformations, even if former Apple superstar Bozoma Saint John starts attending conferences in his place, he still gets to be Uber’s de facto mouthpiece. The man who, at the age of 37, found it appropriate to begin an email to his employees with the directive: “You better read this or I’ll kick your ass.” That guy.

Wrapping up a meeting where Uber’s board offered an overview of the changes it would implement, the company’s human resources chief, Liane Hornsey, reportedly asked everyone in the room to stand up and give each other a hug. She then thanked Susan Fowler for acting as a catalyst for change within the company. Fowler was not there, and she will not be returning to the company like Kalanick will. For her, and for the many other people hurt by the aggressive and irresponsible culture of Uber, there is no padded contingency plan — just the clear message that Silicon Valley will stop at nothing to preserve its moneymakers.