Culture

UBER FACED DAMAGING BACKLASH FOR AN ALLEGED “TOXIC” CULTURE. HOW CAN HR STEER CLEAR OF CULTURE SCANDALS?

By Sarah Andresen

The last six months have seen Canadian culture publically lauded around the globe for its inclusivity, positivity and diversity. It’s no wonder, then, that consumers, politicians and businesses alike have mixed opinions about Uber across the country, particularly given the latest in a string of scandals which hit headlines earlier this year.

Former engineer Susan Fowler’s blog post that recounted her experience working at the company went viral around the world. In the post, which first appeared on Feb. 19, she described a list of worrying incidents, including sexual harassment, threatening behaviour, discrimination and a mass exodus of women on her team. In a world where reputation is linked directly to share price and the fight for talent is cut-throat, this is the stuff of corporate nightmares.

Fowler called out the behaviour of her management team, but, even more importantly, she alleged similar poor behaviour from the HR team, which should be the ethical safeguard for all employees in such situations. The Uber HR team came away from the incident looking disorganized and even threatening. Uber responded quickly with internal meetings and hiring former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate, but frustrated employees continue to vent across social media channels.

What can other HR professionals learn from Uber to ensure that their company doesn’t become the next culture exposé, damaging its culture and recruitment strategy?

Ensure a positive culture is being built from the top down

Every organization will have its own unique concept of the culture. For some business models, a culture of flexibility and collaboration is the most effective way to achieve organizational goals, while for others it might be an agile working methodology. In any case, it is always the senior leaders who set the tone as those beneath them naturally emulate their values and behaviours. As such, it is vital to ensure that those given these positions of power buy into the company’s “right” culture. Cultural compatibility tests can be built into recruitment and promotion processes so that unbalanced, inappropriate cultures can be avoided.

Identify those looking only for individual success

Unfortunately, some companies employ people deliberately withholding critical information and trying to sabotage the careers of others to get ahead. Of course, attracting, engaging and retaining high performers is crucial to drive continuous growth and success, but not if it becomes a culture of individual success at any cost. Pulse surveys, 360-degree feedback and data on internal mobility patterns, such as requests to move departments, can help monitor for toxic individuals and dynamics.

Don’t rely exclusively on attrition figures to spot problems

During her time at Uber, Fowler estimated that her team of 150 engineers went from 25 per cent women to 3 per cent. Alongside this, she highlighted sexual harassment, threats of retaliation for reporting it and discrimination. In a world where diversity is directly linked to business success and HR leaders are taking on a more strategic role, spotting and resolving such issues is important – but not always easy. Employees may tolerate such behaviours because rewards can make reporting incidents or even leaving the organization difficult. Attrition figures should not exclusively be used as the basis for analysis. Multiple data streams, such as performance, promotion, salary, hiring and engagement, should be used alongside direct questioning around inclusion and respect on employment surveys to monitor and test for these types of issues.

Ensure that managers and employees digitize and document everything

Fowler mentions that despite a perfect performance score, her request to transfer from a team was blocked because of “undocumented performance problems.” In today’s digitally enabled word, there is no longer any room for things going undocumented. End-to-end holistic HR tools have been specifically designed to ensure that every aspect of an individual’s career – whether soft or hard, public or private – is officially recorded and taken into account.

While it doesn’t look like this scandal has affected app usage or downloads, there is speculation that it will harm the company’s recruitment strategy. This a serious issue in Silicon Valley, where finding capable engineering talent is hard and represents the difference between life and death for a tech organization. 


Sarah Andresen is the head of people science at Fairsail, a global HR and people management system provider.