Uber’s drive for disruption leads to scandal-prone corporate culture

Allegations of sexism and position on travel ban measure Silicon Valley’s ethical climate

It seems Uber can't get through a week without generating some unwelcome headline or other. However, this week's instalment in the never-ending melodrama at the ride-sharing service is among the most serious.

On Sunday, Susan Fowler, an engineer who spent a year working with Uber before leaving in December, published a scathing essay, Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber, detailing the difficulties she endured at the company, beginning but not limited to sexual harassment.

It began on her very first day, when she was propositioned by her manager, an incident that was exacerbated when she reported the matter to HR, who told her the manager in question could not be fired as he had never incurred any complaints before.

Fowler swiftly found that excuse to be less than true – many of her female colleagues told her this manager had repeatedly been reported for inappropriate advances.

“I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on – unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently,” she wrote. Instead, HR offered her “such a blatant lie that there was really nothing I could do. There was nothing any of us could do. We all gave up on Uber HR and our managers after that. Eventually he ‘left’ the company. I don’t know what he did that finally convinced them to fire him.”

Fowler's essay generated a huge backlash, prompting Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick to respond by promising a comprehensive investigation: "What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in." He subsequently hired former US attorney general Eric Holder to investigate the allegations.

Airport boycott

Fowler’s allegations follow the high-profile #DeleteUber campaign, when the company became an ancillary casualty of Donald Trump’s Muslim-focused immigration ban. While New York’s taxi drivers boycotted JFK airport on the weekend of the ban, Uber continued to service the airport, announcing it wouldn’t impose surge-pricing.

In fairness, Uber was not in a position to boycott the airport – the drivers, after all, are most definitely not employees of the company, oh no, so Uber can’t tell them where they can and cannot go.

However, it’s a measure of the low esteem that Uber and Kalanick are held in that people saw Uber as effectively aiding and abetting the travel ban. Kalanick’s position on the business advisory council to Trump most likely played a part in cementing that suspicion, but Fowler’s allegations, after all, are part of a pattern.

Uber has long been at the centre of negative stories, often regarding its treatment of drivers, attitude to regulations and privacy concerns, but also sometimes for more sinister incidents. In 2014, it was revealed that senior executives had suggested digging up dirt on critical journalists, in particular the indefatigable technology reporter Sarah Lacy, who had reported on rampant sexism at the company.

When one company consistently attracts an unusually high level of negative headlines and generates recurring tales of turmoil, it’s usually a sign of systemic flaw in its internal culture.

Indeed, Fowler drops a telling but almost incidental detail in to her account: “In the background, there was a Game of Thrones political war raging within the ranks of upper management in the infrastructure engineering organisation.”

Macho rivalry

Such macho internecine rivalry is not unusual in companies of any size, but at Uber it appears to manifest itself in toxic ways, and leads to a very predictable outcome – a dwindling number of female engineers. Fowler points out that: “When I joined Uber, the organisation I was part of was over 25 per cent women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another [engineering] organisation, this number had dropped down to less than 6 per cent.”

These tales of Silicon Valley misbehaviour can seem like a mere backdrop to the world of technological innovation, a gossipy insider game of little relevance to the products and services that emerge from the technology scene.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that any company is at all times creating two things – the product or service it offers to customers and clients, and the internal corporate culture that makes those products or services. The two are not unrelated – on the contrary, they are entirely interdependent. They inform each other in all sorts of critical ways.

For Uber, and for much of Silicon Valley, the drive to disrupt is the central incentive, which can lead to some unhealthy behaviours. Uber’s entire business model is about destroying existing industries, with zero regard for the people affected. Riding roughshod over existing regulations, not respecting norms, is its modus operandi.

That is the animating personality of the company, by its very design. And that aggressive personality is at odds with fostering a more diverse, inclusive workforce that would mitigate against more controversial incidents.

Needless to say, companies that consciously attempt to cultivate an ethical, tolerant internal corporate culture usually carry that ethos over to their products. Perhaps Uber’s consistent negative headlines will reinforce the value of that approach to a Silicon Valley that needs constant reminding.