Harassment and the cost of culture at Uber

The recent reports and allegations of sexual harassment at Uber have once again have highlighted the ill effects of a toxic work environment that rewards bad behavior.
In mid-February, Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, wrote a blog in response to the many questions she’s received about why she left the company and what her time was like while she was there. “It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind,” she said, as she detailed several bizarre interactions with Uber managers and HR representatives, all of which did not end as she had expected.
Her allegations suggest how Uber’s rapid growth and culture seemed not to have placed value on treating people fairly and professionally. They may have included the people conduct of respect, professionalism, and inclusion in their written values, but apparently failed to make them part of their daily business performance and performance management.

Fowler tells her story

Fowler’s story began when she reported a claim of sexual harassment to HR. Usually, an HR department at a major company would respond quickly when faced with a complaint of this magnitude, but that wasn’t the case. The harassing manager was a “high performer” and this was his first offense, so a warning and a stern talking to considered, apparently, action enough. Consequently, Fowler was the one who was penalized and was ultimately strong-armed into choosing to be transferred to another department.
She described one bizarre event after another including a transfer that was blocked due to an unfavorable performance score, which was unknowingly altered after the official review, a conversation with a manager who threatened to fire her for reporting his manager to HR, and was berated by HR for keeping email records and for reporting anything via email to HR.

It’s what the organization’s culture demands

Usually, HR representatives act in line with the expectations of the organization. “Often what the organization tolerates and rewards guides their performance rather than what they know, as HR professionals, to be appropriate.” Steve Paskoff, President and CEO of ELI commented, “In my judgment, when HR departments ignore allegations of serious misbehavior, as Ms. Fowler alleges, they are basically acting in line with what the organization’s culture demands, with what they believe is important, and with what other leaders to whom they report view to be important and part of the way the organization should operate.”

An environment of unrelenting chaos

During Fowler’s remaining time with Uber, “projects were abandoned, objectives and key results were changed multiple times each quarter, nobody knew what our organizational priorities would be one day to the next, and very little ever got done. We all lived under fear that our teams would be dissolved, there would be another re-org, and we’d have to start on yet another new project with an impossible deadline. It was an organization in complete, unrelenting chaos,” she said.
At the time of Fowler’s departure, the number of female engineers at Uber had dwindled from 25% to less than 6%. The reasons? It may have involved sexism. When another opportunity knocked, she, too, jumped at the chance to leave it all behind.

The bottom line

Sadly, such bad behavior is having serious consequences for Uber. Not only has it driven off talented employees and forced them to seek positions with direct competitors, it’s impacting employee performance, productivity, and morale. The brand is suffering and unfortunately the organization may well realize the true cost of bad behavior if it takes a heavy toll on its bottom line.

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