What we should learn from Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s downfall: Your company’s culture can bring you down.
Now that the curtain has been pulled back on Uber’s disgustingly toxic culture, we’re learning that it was not just one problem but a whole host of them that, taken together, led to CEO Travis Kalanick’s resignation. And just like that, what was once the world’s most valuable private company has been plunged into total disarray.
If you’ve been following the story, it’s been argued that what started the ball rolling was an Uber site reliability engineer (SRE) named Susan Fowler going public about being sexually harassed at work by her manager, reporting it to company officials (repeatedly) and getting nowhere.
It’s really an ugly story. In her blog entitled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber,” Fowler recounts how she was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and that yes, her manager was propositioning her, “it was this man's first offense, and they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.” Furthermore, they said that he was a high performer (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and that they “wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”
Gee, gotta love that HR.
At first, Fowler thought the situation was unique to her…until she switched teams and met other women engineers who had stories similar to her own. Some had even reported the exact same manager. All received the same response to their accusations: nothing. “We all gave up on Uber HR and our managers after that,” Fowler writes. Referring to the harasser, she adds, “Eventually he ‘left’ the company. I don't know what he did that finally convinced them to fire him.”
Although grossly appalling, this “acceptable” behavior at Uber was never about a single individual. It was about the maltreatment of an entire gender of employees. Add to that the rape of a passenger by an Uber driver in India (followed by Uber executives, including Mr. Kalanick, obtaining and reviewing the victim’s medical records), Greyballing (deceiving authorities who tried to shut down its service), God View (a tool that can track passengers), lying to the press and ignoring regulators, and it’s no wonder that the Uber bubble burst.
“This was not just Mr. Kalanick’s failure—it was far bigger,” reports The New York Times. “This was systemic. Top to bottom, Uber was a failure of Silicon Valley’s startup machine.”
Has your culture lost focus on the right values?
The turmoil even extended into the Uber board meeting where Ariana Huffington was insulted by David Bonderman who made a sexist remark at, yes, a company meeting on sexism. He subsequently resigned from the board and apologized for his inappropriate comments.
And although Uber is the latest and most egregious company to be exposed as having a toxic anti-woman culture, it is by far not alone. It doesn’t take much research to see that sexual harassment is alive and well in workplace cultures.
• Last February, Sterling Jewelers, the multibillion-dollar parent company of Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, was accused of creating a work environment in which sexual harassment and discrimination against women have gone nearly unchecked.
• The exit of Roger Ailes at Fox News and the ouster of its star Bill O’Reilly (as well as the $13MM payout to settle claims against him) exposed the non-existence of any cultural mores in the news industry.
And it’s not just these examples—it’s everywhere. A 2015 survey by Cosmopolitan of 2235 part-time and full-time women employees revealed that 1 in 3 had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. At a time when women represent 46% of the workforce in the U.S, wouldn’t you think we could create a workplace culture that prevents sexual harassment situations from undermining businesses and threatening their leadership? Wouldn’t business leaders want to do that rather than enable it?
What to do? Can you really evaluate your company’s culture? How are the women (or people of color or LBGTQ employees or ...) being treated? Does it matter to you?
We do a great deal of consulting work with companies that need a culture shift or a dramatic culture change process in order to build engagement with employees, create a better work environment and enable the kind of team effort that sustains growth. We often notice that the business leaders, managers and staff we’re working with do not know what they are actually doing and why it might not be the “right” thing to do. Isn’t it “ok” not to invite women employees to a company dinner with an important client because there will be “too much talking”?
Unless there is a mirror of some kind showing us what we are doing, what we are saying and why some things are NOT ok, it’s unlikely business cultures are going to drastically change.
For you, as a CEO or leader of an organization, what can you do to change the workplace environment and build a culture where sexist behaviors are not acceptable—assuming you want to create a more comfortable business culture for women (and others)?
Here are three things to consider if you would like to see your business with “fresh eyes.”
1. Spend a day in the life of your staff. “Undercover Boss” is a great model to emulate. Participant observation (a core methodology of anthropology) works particularly well, allowing you to hang out, listen to conversations and learn what your people are dealing with each day.
2. Work with your Human Resources team to review the past two years of problems. Look for trends. Listen to how your staff has managed them. Are they advocates for the employee or protecting the company?
3. Do your own survey of your staff (women and men) and see if there are unacceptable experiences taking place. What do you hear versus what you think? Do women believe they are negatively targeted because they are female? Do the guys think everything is just great? Or are they perhaps aware of what they are doing?
However you do it, your goal is to see your company’s culture with fresh eyes so that it does not take you down. And don’t let your culture hurt those women who are going to be a huge part of your future workforce.