Is a "Very Strange Year at Uber" a Cue to Improve Culture or Harassment Training …or Both?

Whenever we see headlines about an organization embroiled in some kind of ethical or legal misstep, what usually follows are a series of questions about what exactly went wrong. The answers to these questions usually shine a light on the particulars of the situation, but sometimes they also offer powerful insights into larger problems with the organization’s culture and the behavior of its leadership.

Many times, it turns out that the organization’s leaders failed to create a culture of ethics and respect, one that doesn’t tolerate bad behavior.

And in some cases it’s actually the example set by top executives that models and reinforces bad behaviors amongst their workforce— and, when that happens, things will almost certainly go awry.

That’s pretty much what happened with the ride-sharing giant Uber, which has been scrambling to recover ever since a former software engineer wrote a long blog post, titled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber,” detailing harassment mistreatment and disrespect that she and other women at Uber endured. This isn’t the first time Uber has been accused of mistreating women, whether they were customers or journalists. Kalanick once used an off-color play on the company name to reference how easily he could get dates, thanks to the company’s success.

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That last incident is telling—not just about the company’s treatment of women, but about its values. When the CEO is making remarks in public that would make women employees uncomfortable, it sets a tone that is almost certain to infect the entire organization.

Founder and 40-year-old CEO Travis Kalanick has since said:

"I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it."

The company hasn’t denied the allegations; it has moved to damage control—and fixing a badly broken culture. Jim Gurley, a legendary Silicon Valley investor and Uber board member, made clear that things needed to change, noting that “the longer bad behavior goes on, the worse things end up.” Founder and 40-year-old CEO Travis Kalanick has since said “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.” Kalanick has now held listening sessions, acknowledged the concerns of his female employees, and is looking to hire a COO who can help right the ship.

These are great first steps in a new direction. Kalanick and his new second-in-command—and, indeed, anyone hoping to learn from Uber’s struggles—must understand that the fix to problems like sexual harassment and a failure to respect all employees starts when leaders create positive culture norms through their own example, and then encourage and empower employees to follow their lead, embrace the organization’s Code of Conduct and engage in proactive compliance training programs.  Only in this way can leaders and employees alike place core values of ethics and respect at the center of everything the organization says and does.

So, it’s not enough to have the right policies in place, or to issue statements about commitments to diversity and preventing harassment in the workplace. You must have the infrastructure to train on those policies, and to enforce them. And the commitment has to be programmed into the company’s culture—so it manifests itself in every employees’ behavior every single day.

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When we learn that a company doesn’t hold harassers accountable, or that its female employees don’t get the same perks as men (two of the allegations detailed in the former Uber engineer’s blog post), we know ethics and respect is not at its core. In Uber’s case, it sounds like the drive for growth trumped those very values.

Whatever it may be, organizations whose leaders don’t put ethics and respect at the very center of everything they say and do are setting themselves up for exactly the kind of culture crisis Uber is living through now. So, maybe Uber’s very strange year was not only a cue for their own leader, but a powerful learning moment for leaders everywhere.

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