Does Uber’s HR Really Suck?

Clearly by now if you’re in HR you’ve read this post by a former female engineer from Uber. It’s very detailed and sounds almost exactly like most companies in the world. No, not the part of ignoring sexual harassment, but almost every other part! Worker gets wronged. The company seems to do nothing. Worker gets more and more frustrated. The company loses patience with the worker. It always ends bad. 

The former IT Engineer at Uber, Susan Fowler, left the company and on her way out she, figuratively, burned every bridge in sight with a scathing blog post about her experience!

From her post:

When I reported the situation, 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. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.

I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that. I remarked that this didn’t seem like much of a choice, and that I wanted to stay on the team because I had significant expertise in the exact project that the team was struggling to complete (it was genuinely in the company’s best interest to have me on that team), but they told me the same thing again and again. One HR rep even explicitly told me that it wouldn’t be retaliation if I received a negative review later because I had been “given an option”. I tried to escalate the situation but got nowhere with either HR or with my own management chain (who continued to insist that they had given him a stern-talking to and didn’t want to ruin his career over his “first offense”). 

Ouch, that’ll leave an organizational mark! Go read the post, there’s much more than this little bit.

I’m in HR so I realize a few things about this scenario:

  1. There are always, at least, two sides to every story. If what happened to Susan, actually happened as she wrote, shame on Uber. But, there are always two sides.
  2. Susan just happens to have launched a new book and is writing another. The timing on this couldn’t have been better to sell books. (that’s just the cynical HR guy in me).
  3. The former head of HR at Uber during Susan’s time there, Renee Atwood, left to go be the CHRO at Twitter after only 2 years. After seven months she then left that role at Twitter. This might speak to the lack of leadership at Uber in HR during Susan’s tenure, it might not, it’s just one piece of data. Prior to Uber and Twitter, Atwood had only held Director level roles at a giant banking company. Taking on the full show is a completely different monster, then a narrow hr director role in a giant organization.

So, the blogosphere is ripping Uber apart for being a bad organization. They might be right, maybe they’re awful. What I hear from reading Susan’s piece is a disgruntled employee that sounds like they were in a bad situation. In her post, one HR pro points out to her that the common denominator in all of this is Susan. Which she takes offense to, and if everything is as Susan says, rightly so.

I can’t get over how familiar all this sounds and feels, though. I’ve been the HR pro sitting across from a ‘Susan’. A ‘Susan’ who claims to have ‘evidence’ but really has nothing. Who claims to have witnesses, yet none come forward. Who claim some very, very bad stuff, yet, I found it not to be true, and some really solid people getting tarnished in the process.

Uber might really suck at HR and be awful people. I can’t tell that from one person’s story. I’m in HR, I need to see all the sides!

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Does Uber’s HR Really Suck?

  1. So, the NY Times wrote this article on the subject which makes Uber look even worse. Check it out:

    I’ll still say, as an HR pro it’s still our job to investigate each case on its own. Uber might be awful, that doesn’t mean everyone is instantly guilty – just more likely!


  2. I dont know the facts of the Uber case from direct knowledge. For decades I have investigated harassment claims for HR and supported individuals who are msking them. Working on both sides (and it does feel like sides!) My experience is:

    1) There is unlikely to be any evidence of harassment. This is rarely confirmed in writing and witnesses will not come forward even when already working elsewhere for fear of retaliation and reputational harm.
    2) This fear is well-founded since complainants and their colleague witnesses are rarely in post a year later unless extreme effort is made to ensure this.
    3) HR take no action even when there are repeated complaints since they do not regard the fact of a complaint as a signal that something is wrong.
    4) At the very least the fact an individual feels moved to make a complaint is an indicator that something is wrong in that working relationship.
    5) HR’s response is often viewed as part of a corporate cover up. Sometimes this is what it is. Other times a failure to communicate and support creates that impression.
    6) Maliciously false claims are rare just as in rape cases. But different ideas of consent and appropriate behaviour cause untold distress.
    7) We should not require proof before intervention but move away from blame and proof to recognising that women and other victims of harassment should be able to say no or no more and set boundaries for themselves. On average it turns out there are six orevious complaints to the one I am asked to investigate!
    8) A successful team leader does not need to bully or harass. These behaviours indicate under investment in supervisory skills at a basic level and poor role models at the top of the organisation.
    9) Women are still viewed as commodities or rewards in many cultures and organisations . These attitudes lead directly to some brutal behaviors up to and including rape. It is not enough to write an equality policy or do a one day bullying and harassment day. Respect is built by consistent behaviour over time until it is ‘in the bone’
    10) As long as high performers are indulged and allowed to ‘grab pussy’ as a reward those lower down the hierarchy will emulate this.

    I don’t know what went on at Uber.
    I don’t think many women would make public false claims. Cast aspersions on the complainant! Its an old story. The woman must be lying and she must have some ulterior motive!

    Is it possible that an IT culture (you must surely know IT is well known for this) and a business that employs large numbers of people from cultures with different views about a woman’s role, just might be the perfect breeding ground for some pretty poor behaviour?

    This complaint is a symptom of something going wrong regardless of whether anyone can be proven to have said a particular thing on a particular day in front of witnesses and then confirmed it in writing.

    Why not treat it as such and work out how to reduce the chance another woman may feel the same?

  3. Hi Tim – I’m around HR, and ex HR, so know well that the function is part of the management of a company. I’m also familiar with probability and patterns of behaviour. As a professional and trained meditor I would always listen to both sides of any dispute.

    In this case HR failed to anticipate potential litigation or bad press and mitigate risk for the company. So from that perspective alone they failed to deliver. This is possibly understandable, because cases like this usually go away quietly. This is the pattern.

    Over the years I have been aware of hundreds of similar incidents globally, where HR has failed to do what was needed to protect employees and therefore ultimately the long term interests of the employer brand. The fact is that in so doing, HR becomes complicit in bad practice. This is not just about mitigating risk, it’s also about decency and protecting human rights to create workplaces and organisations run with integrity.

    I read that the CEO is committed to top level investigation and changing the culture and gave an emotional press conference. Let’s see.

  4. Something is terribly wrong with the leadership and guidelines at UBER. Why should something like this even happen at work place? There need to be strict rules and guidelines for all to follow.

    The HR needs to look into it at a deeper level and assure the female employees that this won’t happen again instead of saying that the “male supervisor is important to the company”. IT IS NOW 2017 and sexism needs to dealt with more serious consequences.

    • Slow down Kalpana!

      I’m sure Uber has guidelines, a handbook, etc. But you are making the same leap to judgement. We don’t know Uber’s side of this, so why are you rushing to judgement?


  5. a couple of reactions, Tim. First, what was the end in mind? Did the behavior stop? Secondly, discipline of any employee should be between the employee, manager, and HR, period. Clearly, lots of press. And as we all know, even bad press is still….press.

  6. This post got a lot of publicity because it’s Uber and has drawn attention to an ongoing problem. of course HR always has to look at both sides.

    23% of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace and research shows that action isn’t taken until the 6th complaint. Women usually leave.

    The role of HR is usually weak especially when the employee is bottom line critical and the line management view will prevail. Messages to women are that it’s just “banter” “no harm intended” and to “toughen up” and not be be “so sensitive.”

    In a male dominated environment men will close ranks. I have known male HR managers supporting a woman being bullied or harassed dealt with harshly by their superiors. Women in these environments tend not to shrinking violets and do not make claims like this lightly usually.

    So in answer to your question does HR suck in instances like this – the answer is a resounding yes. Not just in Uber but in many other companies where sexism is deeply embeded. It’s a leadership issue and Kalanick was right to stand up and commit to dealing with it. HR do not stand up often enough and become part of the problem.

    Hopefully the high profile Uber case will highlight the general issue and why women leave tech. It’s the culture.

    • Dorthy,

      The answer is” “We don’t know” because as good HR pros we would never react to one side without knowing the other sides. The first time you judge someone based on statistics if the first time you’ll embarrass yourself.

      I tried to point out some items on both sides here that possibly shows Susan is telling the truth, but we don’t know for sure.

      I won’t say most HR pros in organizations suck. HR is doing the job they were hired to do which is protect the organization. Many people believe it’s HR’s job to protect employees, but it’s not. Now, theoretically, it should be their job to mitigate risk, which if you have a manager harassing an employee you’ve got potential for some major risk!

      Thanks for the comments,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.