Business

Uber culture colonic cleanses CEO Kalanick

Taxi app upstart told to ditch values that excused abusive behavior – while its bro-in-chief takes time off

By Thomas Claburn in San Francisco

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Updated Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is taking a leave of absence while the company he co-founded tries to remake itself in a more humane image.

Kalanick in an email sent to Uber employees on Tuesday said he needed to take some time off to grieve for his mother, who died in a recent boating accident, "to reflect, to work on myself, and to focus on building out a world-class leadership team."

Kalanick's departure for an unspecified period of time coincides with the delivery of a stinging report (summarized here) on the company's internal culture that was compiled under the supervision of former Attorney General Eric Holder, who now works at Washington, DC, law firm Covington & Burling.

The company agreed to subject itself to independent scrutiny after years of questionable behavior from executives. Discontent with the company's toxic culture culminated earlier this year with a blog post by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, who recounted being subjected to sexual harassment and retaliation during her time at the company.

In advance of the release of the report summary, Uber's board made it known that it had accepted all the recommendations contained therein and chief human resources officer, Liane Hornsey, confirmed that decision in a blog post on Tuesday.

"Implementing these recommendations will improve our culture, promote fairness and accountability, and establish processes and systems to ensure the mistakes of the past will not be repeated," she said. "While change does not happen overnight, we're committed to rebuilding trust with our employees, riders and drivers."

The recommendations arising from the report, which was not made public at the time of writing [Uber's now released it here (PDF - Ed], represent a stinging repudiation of Uber's no-holds barred leadership and culture, and Kalanick in particular. Its first recommendation is to review and reallocate some of Kalanick's responsibilities at the company. It also calls for instituting performance reviews of senior executives to hold them accountable, and for recruiting new executives who can carry out the recommended corporate cleansing.

Other recommendations include enhancing the board's oversight capacity and setting up internal controls, like equipping its human resources department with tools to keep track of employee complaints and telling its HR professionals that good record keeping is, you know, important.

Culture crash

Uber's 14 core cultural values, formalized in 2015, will get a rewrite. The recommendations call for the elimination of "those values which have been identified as redundant or as having been used to justify poor behavior, including Let Builders Build, Always Be Hustlin', Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping, and Principled Confrontation."

The company's human resources department faces major surgery. The report summary goes on at length about the need for improving HR processes and how complaints get handled. It calls for diversity and inclusion enhancements, and it advises the implementation of rules common at mature organizations, like a prohibition of romantic relationships among individuals when one reports to the other.

What's more, Uber has been told to just say no to drugs and to embrace teetotaling. The recommendations suggest that the company adopt "clear guidelines about acceptable and unacceptable uses of alcohol and strictly prohibit the use of controlled substances, including prohibiting consumption of alcohol during core work hours."

There's also a recommendation about moving catered dinners from 8:15pm to a time when more employees can avail themselves of the benefit. The implication is that Uber offered dinner late to encourage employees to work late, to the detriment of employees with families or with interests outside of work. According to a company spokesperson, dinner is now offered at 7:00pm.

In his leave of absence letter, Kalanick said his recent family tragedy "brought home for me that people are more important than work."

Fowler in a Twitter post expressed skepticism that the company will mend its ways. "They'll never apologize," she said. "I've gotten nothing but aggressive hostility from them. It's all optics." ®

Updated to add bonus sexism

An audio recording of an all-hands staff meeting at Uber today has leaked online. During the confab, Uber board member Arianna Huffington said another woman – Wan Ling Martello – was joining the board, adding: "There's a lot of data that shows when there's one woman on the board, it's much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board."

"Actually what it shows is that it's much more likely to be more talking,” Uber board member David Bonderman responded. He later apologized after his comment sparked outrage.

Bonderman has now reportedly resigned from the board.

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