When Will It Be Safe to Undelete Uber?

Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of Uber
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi would like you to think he’s got the company’s toxic culture under control. Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

Another day, another senior departure from Uber: Prabir Adarkar, the ride-sharing company’s top finance executive, has left to become the CFO of DoorDash. He’s treading a well-worn path out the door, following in the footsteps of HR chief Liane Hornsey, who resigned on July 10, and brand head Bozoma Saint John, who quit last month. As for COO Barney Harford, he hasn’t left yet, but don’t be surprised if he does. In the departures of at least three of those four executives—Hornsey, Saint John, and Harford—racial issues were front and center; they seem to have taken over from sexism as the most important crisis for Uber to resolve.

Meanwhile, inbound traffic remains low. Most notably, the crucial CFO spot remains vacant, even as CEO Dara Khosrowshahi continues to insist that there’s going to be an IPO next year; the markets will not react well if he tries to go public with a CFO who has barely managed to find the way to the corporate cafeteria.

At most companies, this kind of volatility at the top of the org chart would be of interest mainly to investors and employees. At Uber, however, it’s more widely relevant, given how many people have switched to Lyft or deleted Uber from their phones in protest at the company’s culture and values. The #deleteuber campaign led to the defenestration of founder Travis Kalanick as CEO; his replacement by the kindler, gentler Khosrowshahi was not in and of itself sufficient to get those customers back. Which raises the question: When, if ever, will it be OK to undelete Uber?

One perfectly coherent answer to that question is “never.” If you deleted Uber because you don’t want to reward Travis Kalanick for being an asshole, then, well, you should keep it deleted, since Kalanick remains Uber’s largest shareholder, and every time you use the app, you make him a little bit wealthier. And if you deleted Uber because you think it should treat its drivers as employees rather than independent contractors, then similarly there’s no indication that’s going to change. (Although on those grounds you shouldn’t use Lyft either.)

On the other hand, it’s also reasonable to be willing to go back to Uber if and when it becomes clear the company is no worse than Lyft, at which point you might want to choose between them on grounds such as price or convenience.

So far, that is not clear. Travis Kalanick spent many years building an unpleasant, aggressive, and sexist corporate culture; even if he’s no longer CEO, his company will remain unpleasant, aggressive, and sexist for a while. Corporate cultures change very slowly, and usually for the worse: It’s hard to transform a bad company into a good company. Which means the task facing Khosrowshahi is a very, very tough one, and no matter how good he is at his job, it would be unreasonable to simply assume that he’s going to succeed.

What’s more, the continued turmoil at the top of Uber’s executive ranks is evidence that he isn’t succeeding and that Uber’s cultural problems are deeply entrenched. It’s not strong evidence, to be sure. Sometimes, corporate change requires staff turnover. But the departure of Saint John, in particular, is worrying for anybody who hoped Uber could be a happy home for a powerful woman of color.

For the time being, then, it’s still too early to undelete Uber. It’s possible Uber will change; it’s also entirely possible that it hasn’t changed much to date and that it won’t change much in future. The onus of demonstrating the change is on Khosrowshahi, and he has to be careful not to proclaim victory too early. His job is to take a long-term view and to build Uber into a public company that will be a responsible corporate citizen for many decades to come. If it takes him a few years to turn the culture around, that would still be a win. But for now, it’s safe to assume that he’s not there yet and to look for alternative ways of getting around.