Just as enthusiasm for boycotting Uber had begun to fall off the collective radar, the ride service came under new scrutiny after a former employee published a blog post excoriating the company as having a hostile work environment that fostered a culture of harassment that affected its female employees. Last month #DeleteUber began to trend on social media in response to the company taking advantage of Donald Trump's travel ban when it dropped surge pricing and sent drivers to John F. Kennedy International Airport to drop and pick up passengers amid a strike by New York City taxi drivers. In addition to former Uber engineer Susan Fowler publishing the blog post alleging the company has a misogynist culture, The New York Times released an exposé that could do further damage to the tarnished Uber brand. Uber, in scramble mode, began emailing customers who were attempting to delete the app asking them to reconsider because the company is “deeply hurting,” according to CNN Tech.
The company first felt the pinch of a boycott when it broke the strike line over the last weekend in January when thousands protested Trump’s travel ban. Ride-share customers leaped to Uber’s competitor Lyft in droves, especially since that company donated $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union in the wake of the ban.
Running damage control, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick later announced that the company would set up a fund to help its drivers who were affected by the travel ban. He also resigned from Trump’s advisory board.
The backlash against Uber had appeared to die down following Kalanick’s moves, but Fowler’s blog post, which has gone viral, which detailed her year at the company bouncing from team to team after having been sexually harassed early in her employment by her team leader, put Uber back in the news.
“After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird,” Fowler wrote/ “On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn't. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn't help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.”
Despite her screenshots of their conversation, Uber’s human resources department protected the manager for being a “top performer,” Fowler alleged in her post.
Stories like Fowler’s are not outside the norm, however, according to The New York Times’ report. Uber, valued at approximately $70 billion, fosters a toxic environment based on a meritocracy that has employees stepping on each other to reach the top, the paper reports.
For its piece on Uber, the Times interviewed 30 employees, and reviewed chat logs and emails to uncover some of the most unsavory behavior at the company, including reports of a company manager touching a female employee’s breasts while at a work function in Vegas, and one of the company’s directors using a homophobic slur toward an employee during a meeting.
Following the latest exodus from the company in the form of deleting the app, Kalanick launched an internal investigation into Fowler’s harassment claims. He also issued a statement condemning the actions should they prove to be true.
“What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in,” Kalanick wrote. “We seek to make Uber a just workplace for everyone, and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber — and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is O.K. will be fired.”
Uber board member Arianna Huffington and former Attorney General Eric J. Holder were called on to help with the investigation. In a tweet, Huffington mentioned an “all-hands” meeting Kalanick held but did not go into the content of the meeting. The Times wrote, however, that during that meeting employees shared concerns about the culture of harassment as Fowler described it — some of them were shocked that such behavior had taken place, while others related personally to the harassment.
Kalanick was praised by some for taking swift action in response to Fowler’s accusations.
“What I can promise you is that I will get better every day,” Kalanick said, assuming some responsibility for fostering a culture in which things got out of hand. “I can tell you that I am authentically and fully dedicated to getting to the bottom of this.”
Despite Kalanick’s appearing contrite, Fowler’s allegations depicted a fairly open culture of harassment in an aggressive environment in which human resources appeared complicit.
“When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to,” Fowler wrote. Later, she discovered that other women had reported the same man to human resources long before she joined the company, she alleged in her post.