Uber CEO Travis Kalanick apologized for the mistakes that helped create a culture in which an ex-engineer was repeatedly stymied in her attempts to report sexual harassment, in an all-hands meeting at the company’s San Francisco headquarters that employees who participated described as “honest, raw, and emotional.”
Uber employees, who requested anonymity to recount some details of today’s meeting, said they were taken aback by Kalanick’s response to ex-engineer Susan Fowler’s allegations of sexism, which she detailed in an explosive blog post on Sunday. Hours after Fowler’s account went public, Kalanick vowed a thorough investigation, calling her experience “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” And the conversation continued in today’s meeting, which ended up turning into a Q&A between Kalanick and his employees.
Employees said it was very rare to see Kalanick care so much and exhibit so much emotion at a staff meeting. (Kalanick appeared to tear up at times during the meeting, according to Bloomberg.) They came away believing that the Uber CEO was taking these allegations extremely seriously and personally, and was completely invested in the results of the investigation.
In an internal email sent to Uber employees yesterday, Kalanick said his company had brought on former US Attorney General Eric Holder to oversee “an independent review” of the issues raised by Fowler. Holder will work with Tammy Albarran, another lawyer at his firm, and Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post (and an Uber board member), as well as Angela Padilla, an in-house lawyer, and Uber’s HR chief Liane Hornsey. It’s a wide range of people, but critics have already pointed out that an investigation led by so many Uber employees, or in Holder’s case an advocate for Uber, is hardly independent.
“Travis spoke very honestly about the mistakes he’s made — and about how he wants to take the events of the last 48-hours to build a better Uber,” Huffington wrote in a blog post on the company’s website today. “It was great to see employees holding managers accountable. I also view it as my responsibility to hold the leadership team’s feet to the fire on this issue.”
Indications of of sexism and toxic corporate cultures are sadly unremarkable in Silicon Valley, but Fowler's allegations nevertheless struck a chord with many thanks to her efforts to document everything that happened, and convey it all in a dispassionate-yet-powerful personal account. How the investigation proceeds, and what changes are made, will be watched closely by wary investors, fed up customers, and scandal-fatigued employees. The #DeleteUber hashtag has already made a comeback.
Part of Uber’s problem seems to be its flippant attitude toward human resources. According to a thorough account by Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan, Kalanick believed the HR division was there largely to recruit and fire talent, not manage inter-office grievances or allegations of sexism and harassment.
Indeed, since Fowler’s story went public, other engineers have come forward with their own tales. Aimee Lucido, a software engineer at Uber, wrote about her own efforts to improve Uber’s gender diversity, as well as her own experiences as a female employee at a company where women account for less than 20 percent of the technical staff.
“I think this is disgusting and appalling and horrifying and yet I am not surprised at all,” Lucido said. “In fact, I’m most surprised at how surprised everyone else seems to be. I have been shouting about this for years now — and the world at large has been for far longer — and yet people are still surprised when this sort of thing happens. If the world, and Uber specifically, takes one thing away from this, it should be that this is not an isolated incident. Sexism is a systemic issue, just like any other -ism, and it can’t be solved by firing the handful of HR reps that were directly involved.”