Allegations of sexual harassment, among other issues within Uber, have been particularly persistent since the beginning of this year. A new report paints Uber’s toxic culture as a problem that goes all the way to the top.
The attention to the ride-sharing startup’s alleged culture of sexual harassment began when a former engineer named Susan J. Fowler published a detailed account of what she describes as her boss soliciting her for sex and the subsequent nonreaction from Uber’s human resources. Board member Arianna Huffington addressed the allegations and announced that former Attorney General Eric Holder would lead an internal investigation to determine what needs to change.
Yesterday, the Information published a new story that recounts the time, in 2014, that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick allegedly visited an escort-karaoke bar in Seoul along with five Uber employees. According to the report, four of the employees were male managers who proceeded to participate in the bar’s system of calling out women by their designated number to accompany them for the evening. The fifth employee was a female marketing manager who felt uncomfortable in the situation. Reportedly, Kalanick left with his girlfriend, Gabi Holzwarth, about 45 minutes later. Holzwarth confirms the story.
According to Holzwarth, the female manager that was present reported the incident to Uber’s HR chief a year later. Holzwarth also says that she discussed what had happened with the manager via instant message afterwards and the Information was able to view the exchanges. “[I]t made me feel horrible as a girl (seeing those girls with number tags and being called out is really degrading),” one of the messages reads.
The reason this incident is coming up now is because Holzwarth says that she was contacted by Uber’s senior VP of business Emil Michael just three weeks ago. From the report:
Emil Michael—who was in the Uber group that visited the escort-karaoke bar—called her and said he feared the South Korea incident would be discovered by the press. He repeatedly asked her to tell anyone who asked about it that the group had visited a karaoke bar, she says.
“I just want to make sure that if this story comes out,” that she would say they went to karaoke and “had a good time,” Mr. Michael said, according to Ms. Holzwarth…
“I’m not going to lie for them,” she said in an interview with The Information this week. In the interview, she described Mr. Kalanick as “part of a class of privileged men who have been taught they can do whatever they want, and now they can.”
Michael told the Information that his intentions weren’t to silence Holzwarth but just to give her a heads up in case reporters contacted her. He says that he’s “very sorry if the purpose of my call was misunderstood.”
It’s unclear what (if anything) was done about the manager’s complaint at the time. An Uber spokeswoman told the Information: “This all happened nearly three years ago. It was previously reported to human resources and in early March was referred to Tammy Albarran and Eric Holder.” Albarran and Holder are leading the internal investigation of Uber.
Holzwarth says that while they were still dating, Kalanick told her that the employee “must have a lawyer and wants something.” To which she explained that “sometimes it just takes time for women to talk about these things.”
Holzwarth also allegedly had a recent exchange with Kalanick in which she explained how Michael’s call had upset her and she asked if Kalanick might consider stepping down from his CEO position. Kalanick suggested that 2,000 employees might want him to go, but more than 10,000 want him to stick around. “You’ll know when you’re a mother,” he reportedly said.
Uber employees are reportedly looking for ways out but the company’s reputation has become a black mark on a resume. Its president, Jeff Jones, unceremoniously quit last week saying that “the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.”
Employees have also recently voiced displeasure with board member Arianna Huffington’s approach to the internal investigation. Some feel that she appears to be running defense for the company rather than truly seeking to change the culture. But those people are surely not part of the 10,000 that “need” Kalanick and his fatherly ways.