Uber, the immensely popular ride-sharing app, is in hot water because of alleged sexism at the company. Part of the problem is the company’s response — and human resources professionals can learn a lot from their mistakes.
Lesson 1: Always take appropriate action when harassment complaints are made.
It all began when Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the company, detailed her allegations in an essay online. According to Fowler, sexism and harassment are huge problems at Uber.
Fowler had only been at the company for a few weeks when her male manager sent her “a string of messages over company chat.” He told her that he was in an open relationship and was having trouble finding additional partners. Fowler said it was clear that he was making sexual advances toward her.
“It was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR,” Fowler said.
But she didn’t get the response she was expecting.
“Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”
Had Uber’s HR department taken appropriate action against the misbehaving manager in the beginning, Fowler may still be at Uber and this bad PR may have never come to light. But because they let it slide, they’ve opened themselves up to a lawsuit.
Lesson 2: Know when retaliation is illegal.
Fowler also recounted another instance in which everyone in the company was promised leather jackets.
“One day, all of the women (there were, I believe, six of us left in the org) received an email saying that no leather jackets were being ordered for the women because there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order.”
Incensed that only the men would receive the jackets, Fowler logged a complaint with HR. She was basically told that there was no problem and that reporting things to HR via email was unprofessional. Less than a week later, her manager met with her to tell her she was on thin ice for reporting his manager to HR and told her she could be fired if it happened again.
“I told him that was illegal, and he replied that he had been a manager for a long time, he knew what was illegal, and threatening to fire me for reporting things to HR was not illegal,” Fowler said.
Fowler is correct in pointing out that retaliating against workers who voice complaints about federally protected rights, like workplace harassment and prejudice, is illegal. Had HR taken her complaints more seriously, and trained their managers on what are and aren’t fireable offenses, they could have avoided this fiasco.
The fallout from Fowler’s essays has been swift. People from all over the tech industry are rallying to Fowler’s side. Uber users are making their displeasures known, with some even calling for a boycott. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has instructed his Chief Human Resources Officer to conduct “and urgent investigation.” Not to mention all the bad press the company has received.
Human resources professionals can learn a lot from Uber’s mistakes. Make sure your employees know what constitutes sexual harassment. Provide annual training on workplace harassment, and let them know that they can make complaints without fear of retaliation. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how Uber could have handled things differently. Lucky for us, we can use their mistakes as a lesson on what not to do.
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