Sexual Harassment Claims Add to Turbulent Times for Uber

For the second time in less than a month, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick found himself fending off critical questions from his own employees at a Tuesday company-wide meeting.

The last time, Kalanick was trying to justify remaining on President Trump’s economic advisory council after Trump issued a sudden travel ban against refugees and people from seven mostly Muslim nations.

This week, Kalanick was trying to explain to his workers how an apparent atmosphere of rampant sexism could spread within Uber without his becoming aware of it—his response to a widely shared blog post by a former engineer alleging that her manager sexually harassed her and other women at Uber. After the first meeting Jan. 31, the embattled CEO quit Trump’s group. Now, Kalanick is submitting his company’s working environment to a sweeping investigation led by former attorney general Eric Holder.

For Uber, the good news may be that Kalanick is listening to his employees. After the former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, released a lengthy blog post Sunday detailing unwanted sexual advances by a boss and alleged retaliation after she reported it to human resources managers, Uber launched the investigation and tapped Holder on Monday. At the Tuesday meeting, Kalanick reportedly apologized to employees, pledged to hold training sessions on bias in the workplace, and addressed Uber’s lack of diversity in hiring, according to Buzzfeed.

Fowler, who joined Uber in November 2015, claimed that her manager sent her a series of messages saying that he was looking for sexual partners among the women in the workplace. But when she reported the unwelcome contacts, company higher-ups told her the man was a “high performer” who had probably made an “innocent mistake,” Fowler says in a post that went viral.

“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 alleges in the post.

Fowler says she later discovered that other women at the company had also reported inappropriate conduct by the manager she had accused. She left Uber to join Stripe in December—and says other professional women were also deserting the company.

In a blog post on Uber’s site Tuesday, Uber board member Arianna Huffington wrote that Kalanick had admitted mistakes at the company-wide meeting.

“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,” Huffington wrote.

“Change doesn’t usually happen without a catalyst. I hope that by taking the time to understand what’s gone wrong and fixing it we can not only make Uber better but also contribute to improvements for women across the industry,” Huffington said.

While the company reaction is positive, the incident threatens to put Uber in the spotlight as a prime illustration of a widely acknowledged problem among tech companies—a bias against women and minority members, if not pervasive discrimination.

The blowup follows a series of controversies involving Uber over the past year or so—Kalanick’s initial eagerness to remain a Trump advisor after the travel ban order; lawsuits by drivers seeking the status, pay, and benefits of employees; an exit from Austin, TX, after the company failed in an election bid to overturn the city’s call for background checks on drivers; and conflicts with California officials calling for testing permits for self-driving cars.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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