After nearly five months of digging into Uber’s internal culture, its new chief human resources officer says the ride-hailing company’s treatment of women — which gave it a public black eye after charges of persistent sexism and discrimination were detailed by a former employee — is no worse at Uber than at other companies.
“Wherever I have worked, I have seen things that are not great for women,” Liane Hornsey told USA TODAY as she awaits the imminent release of an internal investigation into Uber’s culture spurred by the revelations of former engineer Susan Fowler. Hornsey says she hasn’t been privy to that investigation, helmed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“I worked in entertainment for six years,” said Hornsey, whose resume includes stops at BMG Music, Google and Softbank. “I don’t think it’s about tech, or this city or this company. I think it’s about the world of work, and I think that it’s something that we have to take really super seriously.”
Hornsey, who started at Uber on Jan. 3, has conducted more than 200 separate “listening tour” sessions since February to get a handle on the company’s biggest HR problems.
But she says the issue of sexual harassment as described in a Feb. 19 post by Fowler, who notified Uber’s human resources about sexual advances from her boss but was told he could not be disciplined because he was too valued by the company, has not surfaced.
Instead, employees have been more rankled by compensation issues (the start-up, valued at $69 billion, has held off an IPO), the performance review process, and a feeling that Uber doesn’t fully appreciate them.
“They need more love and respect from the company,” she said. “That’s my sense of what’s wrong.”
Hornsey acknowledged that while public sessions are not conducive to sharing sensitive information, she has also received several hundred private emails and met one-on-one with 50 employees. The company also offers its 12,000 global employees, 36% of whom are women, access to an anonymous hotline.
“(Fowler’s) blog shocked me,” she said. “But, what did surprise me, was when I did the listening sessions, this didn’t come up as an issue. It wasn’t one of our big themes. Other things came up that are in that area, that our values are masculine and a little aggressive, but the harassment issue, I just didn’t find that at all.”
This assessment is a milder expression of Uber’s cultural issues than those voiced by some of Uber’s own executives in the wake of Fowler’s blog post, which detailed how other female engineers had shared similar stories of harassment.
CEO Travis Kalanick teared up at the company’s all-hands meeting shortly after the blog published, calling Fowler’s experience at the company “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” He later told a meeting of female engineers they had experienced “things that are incredibly unjust,” according to an audio recording of the event obtained by Buzzfeed.
Chief technology officer Thuan Pham called the Fowler incident an “utter failure,” even though Fowler cites him as unresponsive to her complaints in her blog post.
Kalanick has not publicly addressed charges of sexism at the company. After the release of a dash cam video that showed Kalanick berating an Uber driver, he said he must “fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.” A COO search was launched.
Some in the tech community have been openly skeptical of Uber’s commitment to change. After Fowler’s post, Uber investors and longtime diversity advocates Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein wrote an open letter on Medium, noting that “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.”
‘Our people are hurt’
Hornsey contends that changes are already underway at Uber.
Uber now is working with an external firm to ensure pay equity, and recently extended its stock option exercise deadline from 30 days to 7 years for departing employees.
Another sore spot was the company’s performance evaluation system, which has just been overhauled with the help of employees who insisted that a disliked rating system be abandoned. Uber used a controversial stack-ranking system, pioneered by Jack Welch and mimicked by Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, that encouraged negative reviews.
Staff complaints about bad managers — 63% of Uber’s managers had never led people before — are being addressed by “cajoling” supervisors into leadership skill-building sessions designed by Harvard advisor Frances Frei, said Hornsey.
But mostly, she said, employees have expressed a sense that Uber didn’t properly acknowledge their contributions in its drive for frantic global expansion.
“Our people are hurt,” she said. “The pride is lower than it was.”
Hornsey cautions that despite some immediate changes, which include a new bring your child to work day and an employee resource group dedicated to parents, real cultural change is both difficult and time consuming.
“About 90% of cultural change programs fail, because either leadership don’t want the change or general lethargy,” she said. “But leadership here really wants this, and there isn’t lethargy here.” That said, she expects real change to take “18 months to 2 years, with incremental steps in between.”
Early data dive turned up no red flags
In an interview at Uber’s headquarters here, Hornsey described both a company and its leader in terms that diverge sharply from the current startup-culture-run-amok narrative.
Uber has been in the news for its aggressive and sometimes legally questionable business maneuverings. The company allegedly created a technology called God View to keep an eye on customer movements, and another named Greyball that aimed to mislead city regulators as it pushed into cities with strong taxi unions.
The company’s frat-like work environment was in evidence both during a 2014 outing in South Korea when Kalanick and other executives went to a karaoke bar that allowed male guests to select paid “hostesses” by number — leading to an HR complaint by one one female manager in the group — as well as at a Las Vegas retreat in 2015 where one male employee groped a fellow employee and another brought a prostitute to his room.
Uber’s competitive side took a tragic turn last summer, when engineer Joseph Thomas killed himself after only five months on the job. His widow Zecole Thomas, who filed a lawsuit last fall, has blamed a demoralizing work culture, noting that colleagues were causing him to question his abilities.
“Here was a man who was very good at what he did, who took care of his family,” she told USA TODAY. “But within months, he started to tell me that he ruined our life. That he was broken.”
And then there’s the ongoing lawsuit with Google’s self-driving car company Waymo, which alleges that Uber exec Anthony Levandowski stole trade secrets before launching self-driving truck company Otto, which Uber bought. Uber maintains that if such were stolen, none of them have factored into its own LiDAR designs.
Undaunted by such issues, Uber continues to press ahead with its aggressive game plan.
That includes its ongoing technological efforts to get rid of the most costly part of its business model (the driver) via self-driving car tech; targeting 2020 for a demo of a flying car project called Uber Elevate; and, last week, announced it was pushing into the trucking space with Uber Freight.
Hornsey says that before eagerly taking over the HR role (“I really wanted this job”), which had been held by Renee Atwood and later was handled by early employee Ryan Graves, she parsed reams of cultural survey data to “get a sense of what this company was about.”
Her conclusion was that Uber, which in 2016 alone doubled to 10,000 employees, was simply like most fast-growing startups. “I didn’t pick up anything in the data that made me go whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, warning,” she said. “I just didn’t.”
Then Fowler’s February blog posted. At an all-hands meeting a few days later, “the company was literally in shock,” said Hornsey, and Kalanick himself was “personally gutted, like someone had dropped his baby on its head.”
Pressed on whether Kalanick, who is, with Hornsey’s help, in search of a chief operating officer, has changed since the incident, Hornsey said she doesn’t recognize the man depicted in the media as her boss.
“I’ll be honest with you, I suffer cognitive dissonance every day,” she said. “Because I read that I’m working for this highly aggressive, highly confrontational guy and I don’t find that at all. My whole experience of him, and I know this is really hard to say to people because they do not get it or believe it, is that he’s extraordinarily fair.”
‘Media continues to hurt us’
Hornsey added that Kalanick has embraced a personal mission to retool the 14 Amazon-inspired corporate values he established long ago, one promoting toe-stepping and another advocating that employees should “always be hustlin’.”
“We have to think about values that need to be in there now, and he talks about teamwork and collaboration,” she said.
But Hornsey also suggested that media coverage of Uber and its various cultural and legal issues is partly to blame for Uber’s own morale.
“If the media continues to hurt us, that’s going to be hard because the pride in the company drops when the media do that, I can’t mitigate for that,” she said.
“But personally, I think we’ll have that moment when people are going to want to come join us, because they’ll see that we want to do things really differently. So many companies talk about this only. But when you’ve had the moment we’ve had, you’re not talking, you’re serious.”
The impending release of the internal investigation will find Hornsey holding her breath. She says she has “tried to think about every eventuality,” and would be shocked if it turns up something she hasn’t already heard on her listening tours.
“But if there’s something I haven’t considered, then I’ll have to consider it,” she said. “I’m sure this all won’t be easy for employees, and in a way it’s a real shame because we’ve made quite a lot of progress since last February. I think we’re going to have a hard moment again.”