The XX Factor

All the HR Suggestions in the World Can’t Change the Soul of Uber 

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is taking a leave of absence from the company.

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

In February, after former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a nightmarish account of the sexual harassment and retaliation she experienced at the company, Uber commissioned a law firm to investigate Fowler’s charges and the company’s culture in general. The task was given to former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder. On Tuesday, Uber released the report he prepared, which 47 recommendations the company’s board unanimously adopted on Sunday.

The Holder report is far less salacious than some of Uber’s recent detractors might have hoped. Though a separate Uber investigation led by a different law firm precipitated the firing of 20 employees for violating sexual-harassment policies, Holder’s document contains no details of wrongdoings and hardly any criticisms at all. It is primarily a proactive document that suggests how Uber might transform itself if it ever intends to climb out of its current reputational ditch.

In that sense, every company could benefit from taking most of Holder’s report to heart. It is full of best practices for diversity, inclusion, and HR work that aren’t specific to the problems recently uncovered at Uber. The report suggests holding company leaders accountable through performance reviews and offering financial incentives to those who model ethical behavior. It recommends tracking HR complaints so it’s easier to find out when violators of HR policy become repeat offenders. Managers should be trained in leadership skills, combating unconscious bias, and interviewing job candidates pinpointed through a “blind” resume process that obscures race and gender, the report says. One provision proposed that Uber adopt a modified Rooney Rule, a hiring tactic the National Football League launched in the early 2000s. The rule held that all interview pools for open senior roles include at least one candidate of color. The Holder recommendation would expand that requirement to include women and compel leadership to put at least one woman and/or one member of an “underrepresented minority group” on each interview panel, too.

Some of the report’s more specific suggestions—forbid romantic relationships between employees and their supervisors, institute guidelines on alcohol use during work hours, require managers to report instances of harassment they witness—seem like no-brainers for any company, especially one with 14,000 employees. Readers can infer a lot about the company’s character from what Holder and his fellow law partner had to spell out. If Fowler hadn’t written a public account of her sexual harassment and mistreatment, Uber might have indefinitely ignored the more than 200 sexual-harassment complaints that led to 20 terminations. Uber Asia executive Eric Alexander, who obtained the police report of a woman was raped in an Uber because he and CEO Travis Kalanick were convinced it was a ploy set up by a competitor, might still have the job he left last week.

Even if the company tries to faithfully honor all the points in Holder’s report, its character won’t be so easily reformed. That character is embodied by Kalanick, who by all reports will remain at the company, though he is taking a leave of absence. Uber is still the company that threatened to spy on critical journalists and used manipulative sexism to wheedle its drivers into working more hours—that’s all part of why it’s succeeded. Kalanick is still the guy who bragged about how much sex Uber was getting him and commented “#FML” in a mass email to employees about how he had to remain “celibate” on an upcoming company trip. There’s only so much robust HR and diversity policies can do to neutralize eight years of growth in the wrong direction.

Just today, the New York TimesMike Isaac reported that, at an all-hands meeting about the Holder report, Uber HR head Liane Hornsey asked everyone to stand up and hug one another. That is a request few capable HR administrators would ever make. At that same meeting, according to audio obtained by Yahoo!, board member Arianna Huffington said that Uber would be adding a woman to its board, and that data showed that boards with one woman are likely to add another. “Actually, what it shows is it’s much likely to be more talking,” fellow board member and billionaire David Bonderman quipped.

That is the state of Uber today: The company can’t even make it through a meeting about its reputation for sexism without somebody making a sexist joke. Sexism at Uber goes far deeper than the things it does. At this point, it’s a core component of the brand.

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