Uber puts its diversity head on leave after employees voice fury at events titled ‘Don’t Call Me Karen’

May 22, 2023, 11:01 AM UTC
Photo of Bo Young Lee
Bo Young Lee
Kanishka Sonthalia—Bloomberg/Getty Images

A series of events aimed at uniting the staff at Uber have ended in chaos, with the company’s head of diversity, equity, and inclusion suspended on leave in the wake of the fallout.

Bo Young Lee has headed up Uber’s DEI department for the past five years but recently came under fire for moderating two events titled “Don’t Call Me Karen.”

The events were billed as “diving into the spectrum of the American white woman’s experience” and featured conversations with white women at the company who sought to have an “open and honest conversation about race.”

The invitation, seen by the New York Times, also focused on the “Karen” persona.

A Karen is a term coined online for an entitled white woman, who threatens to report BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) individuals to authorities or complains about staff to their managers—in short, unnecessarily inserting themselves into situations and causing conflict with their prejudices.

Uber staffers who attended the two events—the first held last month, the second last week—said they felt they had been lectured on the difficulties experienced by white women and why “Karen” was a derogatory term.

When employees appealed to Lee on Slack—a workplace messaging platform—they were dismissed by Lee, reported the New York Times.

The “Don’t Call Me Karen” events are part of a wider initiative titled Moving Forward, a series of discussions that looked at the experiences of underrepresented groups that have been brought to light since the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

Following the first Karen event, a black employee raised the question of how Uber would prevent “tone-deaf, offensive, and triggering conversations” from becoming embedded into diversity initiatives.

According to notes taken by an employee during the all-hands discussion, Lee responded: “Sometimes being pushed out of your own strategic ignorance is the right thing to do.”

Lee then faced a further deluge of Slack messages—as well as complaints to other executives at the company worth $72 billion.

“I felt like I was being scolded”

The second event had supposedly been booked to allow a dialogue between workers about their response to the initial talk—instead Black and Hispanic employees felt they were being told off for their response to the first session.

Messages obtained by the New York Times on Slack channels for Black and Hispanic employees at the transport services company read: “I felt like I was being scolded for the entirety of that meeting.”

A second questioned why the term Karen shouldn’t be used: “I think when people are called Karens it’s implied that this is someone that has little empathy to others or is bothered by minorities others that don’t look like them. Like why can’t bad behavior not be called out?”

As a result of the backlash, Lee has been asked by bosses at the San Francisco–based “to step back and take a leave of absence while we determine next steps,” according to an email sent to staff on Thursday and viewed by the New York Times.

The email from Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, and Nikki Krishnamurthy, the chief people officer, read: “We have heard that many of you are in pain and upset by yesterday’s Moving Forward session. While it was meant to be a dialogue, it’s obvious that those who attended did not feel heard.”

Management response

Employees have welcomed the decisive action from those at the top of the tree at Uber, with staffers reporting they felt “heard” by bosses who “wanted to understand” what had happened.

It’s a marked shift from Uber under its former CEO Travis Kalanick, who was forced to resign in 2017 following pressure from investors.

Lee was brought in under Khosrowshahi—formerly of Expedia—to right some of the chaos that was being reported at the company during that time.

This included an engineer whistleblowing about alleged sexual misconduct at the company prompting an “urgent investigation,” lawsuits over its business practice and how it treats its drivers, as well as ties to former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Uber’s former CEO Kalanick had been part of Trump’s economic advisory council and had discussed policies like immigration with the then President, sparking a boycott of the platform that saw 200,000 users leave.

Uber and Lee have been contacted by Fortune for comment on the “Don’t Call Me Karen” events.

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