Uber: a scandal that keeps on giving Article icon


Something is rotten in the state of Uber.

Its scandal rate is currently running at four this month, and we’re not even halfway through.

A quick perusal at this year’s top 16 shows several common themes: business practices that do not quite stand up to scrutiny, a workplace culture seen as bullying and demeaning of women and poor judgment in its choice of key executives.

Last week Uber was forced to fire Eric Alexander, head of its Asian operations, after it emerged that he had accessed the medical records of a female passenger who alleged she had been raped by a driver in India. I say ‘forced’ because this heinous action took place three years ago – Uber’s chief executive Travis Kalanick and others had even seen the files – but disciplinary action only occurred after an American news website printed the story.

It is hard to conceive any justifiable reason for Alexander’s actions. A passenger trusted Uber to drive her to her destination. Instead she was subjected to a horrific attack. (The driver has since been jailed for life.) She complains, and the company doesn’t believe her. Instead it seeks out her medical records in order to discredit her. Nobody seemed to think that it was wrong to do so – until it was pointed out by a journalist? Rather than sympathise with the victim, the company looks for ways to smear her good name.

No wonder former employee Susan Fowler was convinced that Uber had hired detectives to smear her after her blog post about the company’s sexist culture went viral. Uber denied any wrongdoing in that instance, but just two years earlier its own vice president of business, Emil Michael, actually discussed spending £1 million to hire researchers and journalists to dig up dirt on any reporter audacious enough to criticise the company. Michael was forced out over the weekend, in what he describes as a 'witch hunt'.

Fowler’s tale was truly shocking. A male colleague propositioned her, sending inappropriate messages on the company’s system. She complained to HR, but was told no action was being taken as it was his first offence. Subsequently she found her performance was being marked down. (Uber’s performance reviews – which take place twice a year – uses stack rankings, which means for every high performer there must be an equivalent number of under performers. Dubbed ‘rank and yank’, under performers are viewed as vulnerable, unable to transfer teams and cut off from bonuses.)

The furore around Fowler’s blog prompted Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick to launch an independent review into her allegations, which sounds like news of a sexist culture came as a shock to him. (Quite how it was a surprise is rather amazing: the company is also facing at least three lawsuits from former employees alleging sexual harassment or verbal abuse.)

People often say that the culture of a business is set by its management, so the release of a memo Kalanick sent ahead of a staff trip in 2013 is illustrative. The memo, known as the Miami Letter, which Kalanick told staff they ‘better read or I’ll kick your ass’, set out some behavioural guidelines for the jamboree. Drugs and narcotics would not be tolerated. Throwing kegs off the roof of tall building was out. Anybody puking would receive a $200 fine. Do not talk to the press. And finally: ‘Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic ‘YES! I will have sex with you’ AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command. Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML.’ [NB: FML apparently means F**k my life.]

Now, I’ve met a lot of chief executives but I can’t imagine a single one who would send a memo like that. It’s not that Uber doesn’t have any corporate values. In fact, Kalanick boasted he had spent ‘hundreds of hours’ thinking of them - well there are 14! – but they’re not like any I’ve seen before. ‘Always be hustlin’ and being ‘obsessed’ with the customer, suggest a culture of aggression rather than integrity. It is hardly surprising that employees feel they have a free pass. As I say, it starts from the top.