Uber just ensured that their toxic culture will persist

Graphic: I drive SF

Uber’s culture is aggressive with questionable ethics. Yesterday they announced the reforms they will make, and also said CEO Travis Kalanick would take a leave. Kalanick’s leave will ensure that none of the proposed cultural changes will happen.

Everything Uber did wrong

OK, that heading is inaccurate. I haven’t got space to list everything Uber did wrong in a succinct blog post. But here are some of the ethically bankrupt things they’ve said, done, suggested, or been accused of:

The regularity and consistency of these dubious actions reflects a culture that’s willing to cross ethical lines to gain any sort of advantage.

Uber hired a law firm to investigate — and its report is full of good suggestions

In the wake of these problems — and specifically Susan Fowler’s accusations of harassment — Uber’s board hired Eric Holder’s law firm to review the situation and make recommendations. The company fired 20 people, including Emil Michael, Kalanick’s second in command, the guy who had threatened the reporters.

The report that Holder’s law firm created is full of good suggestions. Here are a few:

Use Performance Reviews to Hold Senior Leaders Accountable. Uber should establish key metrics to which its leaders will be held accountable in the performance review process. This would include, for example, metrics that are tied to improving diversity, responsiveness to employee complaints, employee satisfaction, and compliance.

Increase the Profile of Uber’s Head of Diversity and the Efforts of His Organization. An empowered senior leader who is responsible for diversity and inclusion is key to the integrity of Uber’s efforts. Uber should elevate the visibility of the current Head of Diversity, Bernard Coleman, and emphasize the outreach component of Mr. Coleman’s position. . . .

Install an Independent Chairperson of the Board. The Board should consider the appointment of an independent Chairperson. The use of an independent Chairperson is viewed by many governance experts as a best practice, particularly where there is a desire to enhance the level of Board oversight. . . .

Create an Oversight Committee. The Board should create an Oversight Committee. For example, the Boardcould create an Ethics and Culture Committee or a similar body. A committee of this nature could be organized as a standing committee of the Board, the purpose of which is to oversee Uber’s efforts and enhance a culture of ethical business practices, diversity, and inclusion within the organization. . . .

Implement Enhancements to Uber’s Internal Controls. Uber should take steps to enhance its internal controls with respect to policy compliance. In particular, Uber should review its policies and procedures with respect to travel and expense reimbursements and enhance such policies to ensure that items that are inconsistent with Uber policies and procedures are not reimbursable and not reimbursed, . . .

Reformulate Uber’s 14 Cultural Values. Uber should reformulate its written cultural values because it is vital that they reflect more inclusive and positive behaviors.

Mandatory Leadership Training For Key Senior Management/Senior Executive Team Members. It is critical that senior leaders at Uber receive leadership coaching. Uber should engage a consultant who is respected in the field of inclusive leadership and has worked at the top levels of sophisticated companies to undertake training and coaching of all Senior Leaders.

Provide a Robust and Effective Complaint Process. To address harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in the workplace, it is imperative that there be an effective complaint process in place for employees to escalate issues. Complaints should also be properly tracked and addressed as efficiently and quickly as possible.

While I’ve taken these suggestions from throughout the 13 page report, I think you get the idea. This is a set of suggestions which, if Uber followed them, would put systems into place to identify and reward or punish behavior as appropriate.

Much of the report is in the passive voice. Where there are active voice sentences, they often begin with “Uber should.” But companies don’t do things . . . people do. And that is the source of the problem here.

Who’s going to fix things? Not Kalanick

The culture of Uber reflects its leader’s priorities and attitudes. Kalanick has made statements indicating that he knows he has to change. A different attitude from Kalanick could make these changes happen. But instead, Kalanick is leaving to grieve the death of his mother. Here’s what he wrote to the company in an email:

Team,

For the last eight years my life has always been about Uber. Recent events have brought home for me that people are more important than work, and that I need to take some time off of the day-to-day to grieve my mother, whom I buried on Friday, to reflect, to work on myself, and to focus on building out a world-class leadership team.

The ultimate responsibility, for where we’ve gotten and how we’ve gotten here rests on my shoulders. There is of course much to be proud of but there is much to improve. For Uber 2.0 to succeed there is nothing more important than dedicating my time to building out the leadership team. But if we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve.

During this interim period, the leadership team, my directs, will be running the company. I will be available as needed for the most strategic decisions, but I will be empowering them to be bold and decisive in order to move the company forward swiftly.

It’s hard to put a timeline on this – it may be shorter or longer than we might expect. Tragically losing a loved one has been difficult for me and I need to properly say my goodbyes. The incredible outpouring of heartfelt notes and condolences from all of you have kept me strong but almost universally they have ended with ‘How can I help?’. My answer is simple. Do your life’s work in service to our mission. That gives me time with family. Put people first, that is my mom’s legacy. And make Uber 2.0 real so that the world can see the inspired work all of you do, and the inspiring people that make Uber great.

See you soon,

Travis

This is very sad. But I’m not here to judge Kalanick’s emotional connection to his family. I’m here to determine if the company will change.

Every cultural change requires continuing, relentless commitment from the person in charge. That’s necessary, but not sufficient. And at Uber now, there is no one in charge. Kalanick and his board have created a company with a leader who “will be available as needed for the most strategic decisions” but is now led by his direct reports. And his second-in-command is gone. Even if Emil Michael’s questionable attitudes would have made things worse, now both he and Kalanick will be absent.

A leadership vacuum can’t change a culture. A board can’t change a culture. Only a CEO can change a culture. Until a new and improved Kalanick returns — or somebody else takes over — Uber’s going to revert to what it has always been, because there’s nobody left there who knows where to draw the line.

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