If Uber’s Culture Is to Change, the CEO Must Go

Article main image
Feb 22, 2017
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

If any part of the charges of sexual harassment and favoritism made by a former Uber engineer hold up, company CEO Travis Kalanick should go. The VCs who sit on the company board should do the right thing if he doesn’t, and fire him.

The chaotic, sexist culture described in a blog post Sunday by former Uber software engineer Susan Fowler is no accident. It is the product of the company’s founders of which Kalanick is one. A second founder, Garrett Camp, is chairman of the Uber board and bears some of the blame for the shameful behavior. (A third founder left the company shortly after it was launched.)

A company’s culture, as Tim Kuppler told me in a phone conversation today, “Is a reflection of the company’s founders.”

Kuppler is an expert in the field of workplace culture and co-founder of and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics. Two years ago, he listed Uber as one of “The Top 10 Organizational Culture Crises of 2014.

A culture is new only once

“A culture is created anew only once,” he pointed out. “That’s at the time of the founding… It only evolves after that.”

“The culture forms over a period of time based on what employees believe is expected of them,” Kuppler says.

What the Uber employees were seeing — and the female employees were experiencing — Fowler writes, is the most outrageous form of sexism. and collusion in it by HR. On her first day with a new team, not long after joining Uber, her new manager solicited her via an in-house chat. “It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him,” she wrote, “and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.”

HR does nothing

Shockingly, HR not only did nothing, but cautioned her that little would be done because the manager was a “high performer.” This was but the first of a litany of events befalling her and other women, which Fowler describes in her blog post.

In the slightly more than a year she worked for Uber, Fowler calculated that the percentage of women engineers in her group had gone from 25% to 3%. If that wasn’t a warning sign, what did the company need? It was already hemorrhaging money; analysts forecast it lost $3 billion last year.

Where was the HR leadership?

Renee Atwood was Uber’s CHRO from Feb. 2014 until last August when she left for Twitter. (She left Twitter earlier this month.) We don’t know what she knew or what she was telling Kalanick or if she was even able to tell him anything.

Atwood was Uber’s first HR leader. But rather than reporting to the CEO, she reported to the head of operations. Recode, a tech site that covers the industry, said Kalanick, had little regard for human resources beyond recruiting. That may have had something to do with Atwood’s decision to leave a company readying for an IPO for one struggling to stay alive.

I reached out to Atwood via her Twitter account, but haven’t yet heard from her.

An investigation

In any case, Uber’s new CHRO, Liane Hornsey, has her hands full. Not only does she have to deal with all the normal issues of a company of 11,000, but she’s now tasked to work with former US Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran, partners in the Covington & Burling law firm, in an investigation into Flowler’s complaints.

The appointment was announced by Kalanick Monday, hours after he Tweeted: “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.”

This comes from a man who two years ago described his company to a GQ writer as “boob-er.”

Kuppler is skeptical of the motives behind hiring lawyers to look into the company’s culture. An investigation by attorneys is typically all about risk management, he said. “It’s typically about policies, procedures, the law and compliance.” And not the human aspect of how the company conducts itself, the underlying cultural drivers, and why they exist.

Kuppler predicts the investigation will lead to the firing of an isolated group of employees instead of the top leaders being held personally accountable.

“He has to go,” says Kuppler of Kalanick. “There’s no way he can escape this.”

And there is no reason he should.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.