Why Uber has been forced to U-turn

It’s rare in Silicon Valley to see a company’s sacred values torn apart like this

Uber has faced one crisis after another, including claims that it mishandled the medical records of a rape victim, a lawsuit over trade secrets theft and a raft of executive departures

Uber has faced one crisis after another, including claims that it mishandled the medical records of a rape victim, a lawsuit over trade secrets theft and a raft of executive departures

 

Tech companies love to blather on about their values. Usually these are just bits of fluff – such as “fun” (Salesforce) or “be passionate” (Zappos). But occasionally a start-up comes along that takes its values very seriously. Unfortunately, that’s not always a good thing.

Take the case of Uber, where the company’s 14 values are enshrined in the minds of new hires during an orientation week called “Uberversity”. These include some mantras that could politely be called non-standard, such as “always be hustlin’” and “stepping on toes”.

Uber takes its unusual values so seriously that, in the past, it guarded them as corporate secrets (even though they subsequently leaked out). Outgoing chief executive Travis Kalanick spent hundreds of hours hashing them out with chief product officer Jeff Holden.

“We don’t feel like any of them are dispensable,” Holden told me in May. “We actually consider it proprietary, because it really is Uber’s philosophy of work.” He said he couldn’t tell me what Uber’s values were because they were an important trade secret.

Secret or not, those values happened to be the wrong ones. That was the conclusion of a report published last week by former US attorney general Eric Holder and his colleague Tammy Albarran, who Uber asked to investigate its culture after the well-publicised allegations of sexism and sexual harassment.

Uber’s values

In recent months, Uber has faced one crisis after another, including claims that it mishandled the medical records of a rape victim, a lawsuit over trade secrets theft and a raft of executive departures. A company probe into more than 200 cases of harassment and bullying resulted in 20 people getting fired.

Holder and Albarran were tasked with fixing this. One of their findings was that Uber’s values had “been used to justify poor behaviour” and that the company should “eliminate” or “reformulate” them.

They targeted four values that need to change. The first is “let builders build”, a credo internalised by many of Uber’s managers during the company’s early expansion in which decision-making devolved entirely to them, so they could “build” as they saw fit. This had unintended consequences. Growth was all that mattered, and oversight was secondary, lest it get in the way. This might mean launching in a new jurisdiction before Uber was legal there, or using a secret programme called Greyball to deny service to individuals suspected of working for the authorities.

The other values singled out reveal a cult of the individual: “always be hustlin’”, “meritocracy and toe-stepping” and “principled confrontation”. These describe a company where each person is out for themselves.

Shortcomings

Board members were candid about the Uber’s shortcomings in a company-wide presentation this month in San Francisco. “The key 14 values have been weaponised. Not all of them, but some of them,” said board member Arianna Huffington. Some values, Huffington announced, were being changed immediately. “You know the value about working smarter, longer and harder? Well ‘longer’ is gone,” she said. “Being always on” and “toe-stepping” are also gone, she added. Moreover, Uber’s central conference room, the “war room”, will now be known as the “peace room”.

Such cosmetic changes won’t shift Uber’s culture overnight. If the company does succeed in creating a more respectful work environment, it may be its future leaders, rather than a sanitised list of corporate values, that play the bigger role. As my colleague Andrew Hill noted recently: “There is still a chance that Uber could take a different route, perhaps with a different driver.”

It’s rare in Silicon Valley to see a company’s sacred values torn apart like this. The tech world prefers to operate on the assumption that everyone is making the world a better place. What has happened at Uber reminds us what a dangerous assumption this can be.

As the company tries to turn over a new leaf, its head of human resources is working to develop a fresh set of values. Uber hasn’t said whether these will be made public or will remain proprietary. But the thing about values is that they always have a way of being seen.

- (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)

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