It’s been a bad year for Uber. It’s been a worse year for Uber’s employees. It started with ex-Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler’s account of her time at the company. In an essay that went viral, Fowler described living in a corporate culture that encouraged gender discrimination, blamed victims for the sexual harassment they received from supervisors, compelled managers to lie to and undermine each other, and forced women out of the company in droves. In the months and weeks that have followed, Uber has hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an investigation into sexual harassment claims, and several executives have resigned, but leaked documents and reports from inside the company continue to tell the same story: Uber has a major sexism problem and has no clue what to do about it.
And then last week happened. On the same day Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced he was stepping down, news came out that board member David Bonderman had made sexist comments during a board meeting meant to address sexual harassment. During. The. Meeting. As in the kind of cliché, unbelievable moment that only happens in movies or comic books to demonstrate what an incredible jerk someone is. Unsurprisingly, Bonderman resigned hours later.
Sexual Harassment Is Rarely the Only Problem
Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned Uber’s ongoing lawsuit with Google’s self-driving-car company, Waymo. Or the company’s controversial decision to break the New York Taxi Alliance’s boycott of JFK Airport (which spawned the #DeleteUber movement). Or its alleged violations of customers’ privacy. Or the covert video of Kalanick arguing with a driver. Or the many claims from Uber operators worldwide that the company withholds their pay and puts their health and safety at risk.
The fact is sexual harassment is not just a horrific problem in and of itself, but one of many symptoms of a negative corporate culture. At companies where women who face abuse and discrimination go unheard, countless other problems fester in the shadows: malfeasance, legal risks, mismanagement, ethics violations, and so forth. Harassment necessitates immediate corrective action—for the people involved, and for the organization as a whole.
What We Can All Learn from Uber: Tone at the Top Matters
So, where should companies start? Fortunately for us onlookers (not so much for Uber), the ridesharing giant’s problems perfectly illustrate what not to do when running a business:
- Don’t merely file away allegations of sexual harassment when they come up.
- Don’t make excuses for alleged perpetrators.
- Don’t wait until problems become public to investigate corporate culture.
- Don’t presume inequality and discrimination are systemic issues outside of your control.
- Don’t ignore data that indicate a lack of diversity among employees.
- Don’t assume that employee and contractor conditions don’t matter to customers.
Above all, don’t treat real, pervasive, destructive problems as a joke. When Bonderman remarked that more female board members means “more talking,” he was signaling to all of Uber’s employees, drivers, and customers that it’s okay—normal, in fact—to tell women that they talk too much.
It was a noxious comment, but one of the clearest examples in recent memory of the ways in which a board of directors sets the tone for its organization. Learn why, for the sake of your company’s future, you need to pay careful attention to the tone at the top.