Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How to Cure a Dysfunctional Company Culture: The Case of Uber

Valued at close to $70 billion and operating in more than 70 countries, Uber was giving traditional taxi companies a ride for their money in early 2017 when it came to light just how Hobbesian the company’s culture had become. In February, an engineer who had left the company two months earlier “detailed a history of discrimination and sexual harassment by her managers, which she said was shrugged off by Uber’s human resources department.”[1] Crucially, she claimed that “the culture was stoke—and even fostered—by those at the top of the company.”[2] Interviews with other employees and reviews of internal emails, chat logs, and tape-recorded meetings revealed incidents typified by one manager groping a woman coworker’s breasts at a company retreat, a director shouting an anti-gay slur at a subordinate during an argument, and another manager threatening to beat an underperforming subordinate’s head in with a baseball bat. The operative question is whether anything can be done about the accepted pathology.

Such an organizational culture is deep-rooted by the time it comes to such incidents. “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempted to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job,” the engineer wrote. “No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: They boasted about it in meetings, told their direct reports about it, and the like.”[3] This means that the sordid values were well ensconced, and that even the top level of management knew and approved of them and the related conduct. Nevertheless, the CEO, Travis Kalanick, assured employees that he was “authentically and fully dedicated to getting to the bottom of this.”[4] Either his surprise at the report was feigned (i.e., he was lying) or he had been so out of touch with his own management staff that even the brazen conduct had somehow escaped his notice. With this latter alternative comes the question of whether his managerial work merited his compensation. The first alternative contains its own problem—namely, is it wise to rely on part of the problem to suddenly be in the fix-it seat?

To be sure, bringing in the “big guns”—Arianna Huffington and the former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to “look into harassment issues and the human resources department” is in line with going outside of the extant management of the company. Yet the brazenness of the aggressive conduct indicates that “harassment issues” and the company’s HR department were only the tip of the iceberg. The question is: how to get the squalid stain out of the entire iceberg. It is a contradiction in terms to say that the stained can themselves do it. At the very least, they obviously had no problem with being infected, so the labor would at best be artificial rather than genuine.

Given the cumulative effect of successive hires and “outliers” self-selecting themselves out or being fired, a different type of person would need to be occupy a threshold-proportion at least of the positions in the company’s headquarters for the culture to change. “Training” sessions cannot get at matters of values and attitude—which tend to be more fixed in a person than skill-level. Sensitivity training would likely be a joke—even the mere suggestion could be taken as a sign of incompetence on how to eradicate such an ingrown sordid culture. Of course, the entire top management would have to go. This is admittedly not the path of least resistance. Hence, the prognosis is typically not good for such ill-health that has been so contagious.

1. Mike Isaac, “Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture,” The New York Times, February 22, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.