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Uber Gears Up to Make Changes to Its Culture

A sign with the word uber on it in front of a building.

​Uber Technologies, the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company, needs to make changes to senior leadership, enhance its board's oversight and adopt internal controls, according to the findings from an independent investigation into claims of sexual harassment, gender bias and retaliation at the company.

The investigation by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran of Covington & Burling LLP law firm in Washington, D.C., was triggered by a Feb. 19, 2017, blog post by former company engineer Susan Fowler. In it, she alleged that she had been a victim of sexual harassment, gender bias and retaliation at Uber.

In a statement released Tuesday along with the 13-page report, the company noted that the board had ordered an investigation into the issues Fowler raised "as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly."

The board created a special committee to evaluate:

  • Uber's workplace environment relating to the charges Fowler raised.
  • Whether the company's policies and practices were sufficient to properly address discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.
  • Steps the company could take "to ensure that its commitment to a diverse and inclusive workplace was reflected in employee experiences as well as its policies."

Holder's probe is separate from the Perkins Coie investigation that resulted in the firing last week of 20 employees, including some senior executives, around allegations of misconduct that ranged from unprofessional behavior to sexual harassment.

His report not only raises serious issues about the company's culture, but it also shines a light on how organizations should respond when rocked by scandal or how to prevent such scandal from happening.

A subcommittee of Uber's board of directors saw Holder's report last week, and during a lengthy meeting on Sunday, the board unanimously agreed to all of the recommendations. 

"Implementing these recommendations will improve our culture, promote fairness and accountability, and establish processes and systems to ensure the mistakes of the past will not be repeated," Uber said in a statement posted to its website by Liane Hornsey, the company's chief HR officer. "While change does not happen overnight, we're committed to rebuilding trust with our employees, riders and drivers."

[SHRM members-only policies: Sexual Harassment Policy and Complaint/Investigation Procedure

The report comes on the heels of a flurry of scandals that have rocked the company this year, including a fine of $20 million imposed by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading drivers about pay and the firing of a top executive who obtained and carried around confidential medical records of a woman who was raped in India by her Uber driver.  

Travis Kalanick, CEO and cofounder of Uber, told staff Tuesday that he is taking an indefinite leave of absence. On Friday, he buried his mother, who died in a horrific boating accident. Kalanick is the latest top executive to have stepped aside. Fourteen others have left since the beginning of the year.

Also among the 46 recommendations in the Holder report:

  • Raise the profile of the company's diversity officer.
  • Create an oversight committee, the purpose of which would be to "oversee Uber's efforts and enhance a culture of ethical business practices, diversity and inclusion within the organization." Such a committee, for example, "could monitor metrics that are intended to measure compliance with Uber's business values and the promotion of an ethical and inclusive environment" or focus solely on remediating recent issues at the company.
  • Ensure that HR has appropriate tools, including complaint tracking software, to keep better track of complaints, personnel records and employee data. If an employee's complaint about a colleague's behavior is substantiated, for example, and discipline does not result in termination, such tools should make it easy to identify whether there was a history of similar complaints lodged "to ensure that appropriate action is taken with respect to repeat offenders." The recommendations also noted that senior managers should be able to note if intervention is needed with a manager if it appears there have been multiple complaints about a particular employee. 
  • Prohibit romantic or intimate relationships between individuals in a reporting relationship. 
  • Update policies on discrimination and harassment.
  • Recognize managers for their diversity efforts.
  •  Reformulate Uber's 14 cultural values so they are more inclusive.

Takeaways for HR

Brian D. Pedrow, attorney with Philadelphia law firm Ballad Spahr LLP, noted that the role of senior leadership in changing workplace culture is at the heart of the report. He leads the firm's diversity and inclusion legal practice. 

Many of the recommendations, he noted in an e-mail to SHRM Online, focused on creating, disseminating and implementing change strategies from Uber's board and executive ranks while also elevating the diversity and inclusion role to report to the CEO and chief operating officer. 

And the report emphasizes the importance of internal controls around compliance, board access and involvement in overseeing corporate ethics and structure, he added.

Transparency and seeking feedback are two common themes throughout the report, said Kris Duggan, CEO and cofounder of BetterWorks in the San Francisco Bay area. It works with C-suite executives at high-performing companies to help modify their performance review process.

"From using performance reviews to hold the leadership team accountable to creating a continuous performance management process designed to keep managers and employees aligned, the firm's suggestions focus on a 'no secrets' approach to performance management and company culture," Duggan told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

"HR professionals should consider changing their own policies and practices to support open communication between employees and their managers. Feedback should be shared openly and routinely."

The recommendations illustrate how today's workplace is evolving, he noted.

"Although Uber has an impressive growth story and trajectory, its people processes still need work," he said. "Developing and supporting workplace culture should remain top of mind for all senior leaders."

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