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When the hashtag #DeleteUber went viral last month, venture investors largely shrugged. The thinking went that Uber didn’t deserve the backlash it got for its poor handling of the immigration protests and related taxi driver strike. To be clear: Nobody thought Uber was a victim. Rather, investors blamed the #DeleteUber outrage on pent-up anger and distrust, something Uber has earned over the years with early opportunistic surge pricing incidents, reported privacy violations and threats to dig up dirt on journalists, a sexist ad campaign, fines for insufficient driver background checks and its handling of sexual assault charges, sparring with regulators, reported sabotage of competitors, complaints over the company’s treatment of its drivers, and of course, the “boob-er” comment. Now, anytime Uber stumbles, it does not get the benefit of the doubt.
Last month’s political stumble pales in comparison to the situation Uber encountered this weekend, when Susan Fowler Rigetti, a former engineer at the company, outlined her experience of sexual harassment and gender discrimination while working at Uber. Her description of inappropriate behavior, repeated sexism, and the HR department’s dismissal of her documented complaints paint a picture of an ugly, toxic work environment. And in the context of Uber’s past bad behavior, it’s no surprise the post went viral.
It puts CEO Travis Kalanick in a no-win position: He either knew about it, which makes him complicit in, at best, a total mishandling of the situation, or he didn’t, which makes him clueless. He chose the latter, responding that this is the “first time this has come to my attention.” He announced Covington & Burling lawyers Tammy Albarrán and former Attorney General Eric Holder would conduct an investigation. Holder recently helped Airbnb handle racial discrimination on its platform; last year he sent letters to local and state officials asking them not to require fingerprint background checks for Uber drivers.
The tech world will be watching to see if Uber merely apologizes and waits for this to blow over – as it did after executive Emil Michael discussed a plan to “dig up dirt” on a journalist’s private life, – or if the investigation results in action. As Amy Tsai, an engineer at Yelp, noted on Twitter, inclusion isn’t about hiring more women – it’s about firing sexist employees, no matter how “high-performing” they are.
In an email to staff, Kalanick revealed that 15.1% of Uber’s engineering, product management, and scientist employees are women, which is slightly lower but within a few percentage points of other large tech companies. He hinted at a desire to hit reset on Uber’s culture: “What is driving me through all this is a determination that we take what’s happened as an opportunity to heal wounds of the past and set a new standard for justice in the workplace.”