Speed thrills but kills: rules of the road Uber should have followed


How a speed bump—an incinerating blog post by an ex-employee—slowed down Uber and its CEO.

For the San Francisco-based cab aggregator platform, valued at $68 billion, 2017 has been a tough year. It has been four months since Susan Fowler, an ex-employee of the unicorn, wrote a blog post about the culture of harassment and gender bias prevalent within Uber.

Soon after the blog was published and received worldwide attention, Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, ordered an investigation into Susan's claims and the company decided to look into the reliability engineer’s experience and examine the firm's culture under a microscope.

From that point onwards one has seen the company falling like a pack of cards. The firing of Amit Singhal, SVP of Engineering, who didn’t disclose that his more-than-a-decade-and-a-half stint with Google ended following allegations of sexual harassment, to the firing of 20 employees after an investigation into cases of sexual harassment by law firm Perkins Coie.

In June, the company was dealt another blow when Eric Alexander, Uber’s President of Business, Asia Pacific, was made to leave when it became public knowledge that he had illegally obtained medical records of a woman who had been raped during an Uber ride in India. He had then shared the same with Uber executives, including CEO Travis Kalanick and SVP Emil Michael.

With all this unfolding at Uber, Travis faced personal tragedy too. His mother, Bonnie Kalanick, passed away in a boating accident, which also left his father, Donald Kalanick, severely injured.

In just a matter of months, things went from bad to worse eventually resulting in Travis tendering his resignation soon after he took leave of absence.

In hindsight, one wonders if things have been different at Uber had Susan not written that blog. Did one blog change the equation? Can one woman, if she decides to speak up against a sexist and biased work culture, trigger a spate of events that lead to change?

Disruption short-lived in the long run

Fast and furious doesn’t always cut it when it comes to companies looking to grow at any cost.

Ishani Roy, Founder, and CEO, Serein, a Bengaluru-based consulting firm that is using a data-driven approach to promote diversity and inclusion at the workplace, says, “The Uber incident highlights that 'growth at all costs' approach that has been glamourised doesn't really work in the long run. Flouting basic norms, encouraging aggressive behaviour and ignoring bad behaviour from employees, because they are 'rockstars' can be damaging to the company. The sad reality is that Uber is unfortunately not alone, it just is the most high-profile manifestation of this issue.”

According to a report in Reuters, Perkins Coie investigated 215 complaints at Uber since 2012. Of this list 47 complaints were related to sexual harassment, 54 were related to discrimination, 33 to bullying and 36 were of a different nature.

“This was an incident waiting to happen,” says Nirmala Menon, Founder & CEO, Interweave Consulting. According to her it just happened to be Uber but there is no doubt that it got the leaders from across the board reflecting on respect and inclusion as a business priority.

According to her, “Companies that thrive on high adrenalin and where hustling to get things done is the norm, some of the finer aspects of sensitivity can take a back seat. Breaking rules or 'disrupting' is often seen as innovation as long as it delivers results. The expectation is that you go along or step off as no one has time to deal with whiners. These are the kind of organisations where trouble is brewing.”

Susan’s blog did open the proverbial Pandora’s box, which had far-reaching implications and triggered chain reactions here in India too, with many a skeleton tumbling out of the closet.

“What Susan did may be a small act on her part, but it created a ripple effect that affected other aspects of the organisation and its leadership that was unnoticed until now. For all you know she did not even realise what her one write-up will lead to. That is the power of one woman's unrealised action, imagine what it could be if we all realised it and acted upon it," adds Pallavi Pareek, Managing Partner, Ungender, which helps companies become legally compliant to create more inclusive workplaces.

Why do women need to speak up?

Susan wrote the blog only after she quit Uber. Often women don’t speak at all even after they quit. Why do women hold back?

“Even when they choose to quit, they don’t share the real reason. After all, one is leaving the organisation…why burn bridges? Don’t want to leave on a bad note. They just move on and reboot their career elsewhere. However, when one courageous woman steps forward to report, others come forward to validate it with their own experiences. A collective complaint, they feel, is safer,” says Nimmi.

Other factors that make women hold back is the social stigma of being labelled and misunderstood. Often women are accused of “bringing the situation upon themselves”.

“Women fear retaliation not just in work related matters, but many times they fear for their personal safety as well. Physical injury and acid attacks etc., are not unusual,” Nimmi adds.

It is easy to theorise when one is not at the receiving end of it, surmises Ishani.

“While it's easy to hypothesise what one should do, such situations are very stressful. Most women who have dealt with such a situation want to move away from that negativity, which is an acceptable response. Hence, it is even more important that employers put in place processes and a culture that encourage women to report such incidences and have a proper forum to resolve it,” she adds.

Onus on the employer

Using the Uber story as a peg, Ishani and her team did a survey that revealed many companies weren’t aware of the law or their responsibilities, though India has passed a robust law making sexual harassment in the workplace a criminal offence.

“What's interesting is that the law rightly puts the onus on the employer to ensure that the workplace is safe, and if an incident occurs, it is dealt with correctly. However, this is lacking and not from any malicious intent to ignore the law; rather it's the lack of awareness. Our survey showed that once companies are aware, most want to do the right thing. And this is very encouraging,” says Ishani.

She adds, “And, today, where social media is a weapon to bring up issues of this nature, organisations have no choice but to do the right things. Ignoring bad behaviour at work can cause much damage, even after the employee has quit the organisation. These are realities that organisations must come to terms with.”

The onus is not just on the employer but the women too. Even with policies in place and an employer ready to address the issue, the wheel can only turn only if women are forthcoming.

"Transforming the way corporates work at present for women will only happen when changes happen in capsule mode and the flag-bearer for these capsules can only be women and no one else. After all, if the one experiencing discomfort is not speaking up for themselves, why will someone else who is not affected by it do it,” quips Pallavi.

Too late, too little

As the media circles are abuzz with talk about who the next CEO is going to be, with the most likely candidates being women, there is also a report floating that Uber employees are trying to put together a petition internally to reinstate Travis Kalanick.

However, the one major lesson that the Uber experience has shown us is that disruption and growth at the cost of culture and a comfortable and safe work environment can jeopardise the growth trajectory of the organisation. In other words, the disrupter becomes the disrupted.


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