Uber under investigation in US for gender discrimination

Firm’s culture back under spotlight despite reform efforts under new chief executive

Uber is under investigation by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over accusations of gender discrimination, as the ride-hailing company continues to deal with the fallout of #MeToo allegations.

The probe – which could lead to compensation payouts and fines if unlawfulness is established – began in August 2017, according to a person familiar with the company. Uber's sexual harassment problems were first exposed by Susan Fowler, a former software engineer, in February last year.

The commission action adds to the list of federal probes the company is facing, with investigations into price transparency, foreign bribery and intellectual property theft under way. Regulators are also investigating Uber’s “greyball” tool for evading regulatory officials, its “Hell” campaign against rival Lyft and Uber employees’ handling of an Indian rape victim’s case.

Uber said the company was “continually improving” and that it had “made a lot of changes in the past 18 months, including implementing a new salary and equity structure based on the market, overhauling our performance review process, publishing Diversity & Inclusion reports and rolling out diversity and leadership trainings to thousands of employees globally”.

The commission, which would not confirm the case, citing confidentiality, has filed several sexual harassment lawsuits against employers across the country.

The commission is allowed to fine companies with more than 500 employees up to $300,000 per aggrieved individual, so the amount Uber could be fined depends on how many individuals any resulting lawsuit might represent.

Difficult week

The probe, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, follows a difficult week for Uber in which the troubles that rocked the company last year appeared to bubble up again under new chief executive Dara Khorowshahi.

Last week Liane Hornsey, head of human resources, resigned following an investigation into anonymous complaints over how she handled employee grievances.

On Friday the New York Times reported that employees had filed complaints that Uber's chief operating officer, Barney Harford, had made insensitive comments about women and minorities. Mr Harford, whom Mr Khosrowshahi has known for a long time and hired at Uber in December, said he would work with an executive coach to address his "blind spots", according to the report.

When Mr Khosrowshahi took over from founder Travis Kalanick last year, Uber had been rocked by months of controversies, including alleged tolerance of bad behaviour and sexism that extended into the top rank, as well as clashes with regulators.

Mr Khosrowshahi has been working to restore the company’s tarnished image and reform its management and culture. He has rolled out a new set of “cultural norms”, including “We do the right thing”, and recently won back Uber’s licence to operate in London.

But nearly a year into his tenure, Uber’s culture has come back into the spotlight over allegations of troubling behaviour by senior executives and questions over how much the company has done to support diversity and inclusion.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018