Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has done a lot of backpedaling during the past few weeks. Most recently in a contrite apology email to employees, after a video surfaced of him arguing angrily with an Uber driver. Yet the blunder that caused the greatest uproar – and the one most likely to continue to affect the brand long-term – was former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s allegations of sexual harassment. While coverage has largely focused on Uber HR’s reported refusal to reprimand the accused and the alleged retaliation against Fowler by the company, there has been precious little discussion about what creates company cultures that tolerate sexual harassment in the first place.
This is personal. Like many female business leaders, I was the victim of sexual harassment as a young woman. The truth is that you would be hard pressed to find a female executive who hasn’t encountered harassment along her journey to leadership. Mine happened when I was just 27 and working as assistant legal counsel at Hewlett-Packard in its Canadian headquarters. It is worth publicly reliving the experience in order to share the stark contrast between how I was treated at HP and how Uber allegedly responded to Susan Fowler. I believe that difference is less about the individuals involved and more about the strong yet contrasting corporate cultures of the two employers. Fowler’s experience is indicative of why aggressive workplace cultures that prioritize performance over people aren’t equipped to respond appropriately to discrimination. Put another way, sexual harassment is the outcome but culture is the culprit.
On my first day at HP in 1995, I received a book called The HP Way which shared the company values established 50 years earlier by the founders, the most important of which were trust and respect for the individual. Contrary to today’s business reality where employees move from company to company every two to four years, the attitude then was that you would likely still be an HP employee in 40 years. In fact, if you had less than 20 years tenure at the company, you were considered “new.” Bill Hewlett and David Packard felt that the company’s success relied on its people. HP invested in you for the long-term and in turn you were expected to invest in the company. What’s more, you were rewarded for helping your coworkers along their own journeys. Coming from jobs at cut-throat law firms, it was a welcome change.
This warm and inviting culture couldn’t prevent all harassment, as I learned firsthand after I had been at the company for about a year. I was in a private meeting with a high-ranking executive sitting around a small round table in his office when he reached out and put his hand high up on my leg. Since these were the days of skirt suits, I immediately felt the unwanted weight and warmth of his hand on my thigh. I felt sick. I froze. The executive had his sweaty hand on my thigh, and I was trapped in his office. Eventually, I mustered an excuse to leave, swatting his hand away as I stood up and made for the door.
Immediately following the meeting, I was unsure what to do. Should I report him? Would anyone believe me? Would I get in trouble? Before telling a soul, I was already afraid of reprisal. I decided to tell my manager and get her advice on how to handle it. Her response was immediate and unequivocal: “You HAVE to report this to HR right now. This is serious. I can go with you if you like.”
I ended up nervously recounting my story to the vice president of HR just 20 minutes later. Right away, there was empathy for my experience. Rather than making judgments, she saw me clearly shaken and scared, and offered acknowledgement that this was serious and told me that I was right to have come to HR. She also offered assurances that this matter would be taken seriously and investigated using a process, which she explained to me.
They met quickly with the executive. His response was that he didn’t remember the incident, but if I said it happened, then it must have. HR again validated my experience by sharing his response with me and asking me what recourse I wanted. In addition to a face-to-face apology, I requested a written apology that would go in his file, to acknowledge the incident and to protect against this happening to anyone else in the future. HP had a clear policy that any recurrence of a documented infraction of this nature would result in termination. Because I felt understood, valued, and protected, the executive and I were able to continue our working relationship without further incident or conflict. The company took care of me and in turn I took care of the company.
Contrast HP’s employee-first culture with Fowler’s experience at Uber. Why was the treatment of a similar situation so different? From the very beginning, Uber was built on a “hustle” mindset and a do-whatever-it-takes attitude. This approach proved remarkably successful as, against all odds, Uber turned the taxi industry upside-down and raced towards its current $68 billion valuation. So while the “take no prisoners” attitude was purposeful, what was unintentionally created in parallel was a culture where the ends justify the means and where some people matter much more than others.
What is so telling in the interviews with current and former Uber employees is that it appeared the entire company was expected to sink or swim: backstabbing, hiding information, and threatening others seemed to be all par-for-the-course and accepted means of surviving Uber. Anything is permissible as long as Uber beats the cab companies and wins. “We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi,” as Kalanick described his scorched earth approach to Re/Code in 2014. When you enable a culture that tolerates the vipers, it’s hard to be surprised when people get bit.
Two early and well-respected investors in Uber are pressuring the company to create an outside panel to investigate longstanding cultural issues in light of Fowler’s story, stating in an open letter, “We are disappointed to see that Uber has selected a team of insiders to investigate its destructive culture and make recommendations for change. To us, this decision is yet another example of Uber’s continued unwillingness to be open, transparent, and direct.”
Young entrepreneurs should pay heed to this stunning example of how a business going so right can create a culture that is so wrong. Seasoned CEOs need to ask themselves whether they are remembering to authentically assess where their company culture is leading them. At the end of the day, it remains to be seen whether having a toxic corporate culture is bad for business. What’s clear, however, is that it’s bad for your employees.
How can business leaders avoid letting the quest for higher revenue and profit overtake their corporate culture? Define the values that your company could not survive without and authentically live those values, even when they come at the expense of revenue or speed to market.
Personally, as CEO of a wellness company now, I bring Grokker’s core values in my first phone conversation with every candidate; so does our head of engineering. That’s how intrinsic our values are to Grokker’s success. Employees discuss our values in business meetings and they are part and parcel of our decision making. Each employee is rated on these values in their annual review as part of their job performance. This isn’t an accident. I learned at HP that creating a culture where people matter is the only way to encourage respect, fairness, and trust.
The bottom line is that you cannot fight sexual harassment or any other form of workplace discrimination unless your culture favors fairness and prioritizes people over performance. It is only when employees trust their organizations that they will be brave enough to raise concerns, knowing management and HR will act appropriately in response.
When looking for the answer to how Uber got here, the answer is simple… culture is the culprit.
Lorna Borenstein is the founder of Grokker, an on-demand wellness video network.