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Sexual Harassment: The case of Uber

The recent parade of women who have alleged being sexually harassed or abused got me thinking about a case that involved Uber just a few months ago. Before there was Harvey Weinstein, there was Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, who, on February 19, 2017, wrote a blog titled: "Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber."

Fowler detailed how, after joining Uber, her manager quickly sent her a string of messages about the open relationship he had with his girlfriend, and how he wasn't having as much luck as she was in finding sexual partners. Fowler took this as a blatant attempt by her superior to get her to sleep with him. She took a screen shot of his come-on and reported him to Human Resources. HR told her even though it was harassment, nothing would be done. The manager was highly regarded and it was his first offense. Her choice was to forget about it, be reassigned, or stay put, even though the manager might give her a poor performance review.

Reassigned, Fowler later found other women were similarly propositioned. She wrote about a sexist corporate culture where women saw their performance evaluations retroactively downgraded when it suited male managers.

Ultimately, in response to Fowler's claim of sexual harassment and similar accusations, Uber fired 20 employees, including senior executives, and reprimanded 40 more employees. Uber commissioned an investigation of its workplace practices by Covington & Burling, LLP ("Covington"), which was headed by Eric Holder, former Attorney General of the U.S.

Covington was instructed to evaluate three issues: (1) Uber’s workplace environment as it related to the allegations of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in Fowler’s post; (2) whether the company’s policies and practices were sufficient to prevent and properly address discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace; and (3) what steps Uber could take to ensure that its commitment to a diverse and inclusive workplace was reflected not only in the company’s policies but made real in the experiences of each of Uber’s employees.

The Covington report led to the resignation of Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick on June 13, 2017. Kalanick accepted responsibility for the company's state and told employees that he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence. Following that, the company announced that Emil Michael, vice president of business, was also leaving. Then Uber Board member David Bonderman resigned after making what he called an inappropriate remark about women at a company meeting.

The sexual harassment case took a strange on November 30, 2017, when one of Uber’s early investors and Hyperloop co-founder, Shervin Pishevar, was accused by at least five women of sexual harassment or assault. Pishevar allegedly made unwanted sexual advances or harassed them. The women accused Pishevar of exploiting a professional connection or offering the prospect of a job or investment to commit sexual assaults.

The Covington report lays out a strong case for a company that lacked guidelines on issues of diversity and inclusion and an indifference to what was going on in the company. Holder suggested that Uber change its written cultural values to promote positive behavior, inclusion and collaboration. That means doing away with values that justified poor behavior, such as “Let Builders Build,” “Always Be Hustlin’,” Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping” and “Principled Confrontation.”

The recommendations in the report are designed to improve Uber’s culture, promote fairness and accountability, and establish processes and systems to ensure the mistakes of the past would not repeated. The goal is to rebuild trust with Uber employees, riders and drivers. Specifically, the new plan calls for Uber to forbid “any type of romantic or intimate relationship between individuals in a reporting relationship.”

The sexual harassment case at Uber illustrates what’s wrong with many companies today. They play lip service to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. All that may be changing as Twenty-First Century Fox, Inc. established the new Fox News Workplace Professionalism and Inclusion Council to advise Fox News and management on the workplace environment and workplace behavior, a fallout from scandals that started with former chairmen and CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, being charged with sexual harassment, followed by similar complaints lodged against the network’s star talk show host, Bill O’Reilly.

Equity, diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords. They are concepts around which to build an ethical organization environment. I will address these issues on Wednesday.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 18, 2017. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.

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