When a Single Voice is Enough: How Susan Fowler’s Blog Post Set in Motion a Company-Wide Revolution at Uber and What it Means About Workplace Discrimination.
Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber Technologies, Inc. (“Uber”), published a blog post in February 2017 making allegations of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation from her time at Uber, including the ineffectiveness of the company’s policies and procedures, following HR’s inability to respond to her complaints.
Uber retained former Attorney General Eric Holder to review the case. The review focused on “the specific issues relating to the work place environment raised by Susan Fowler, as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly.”
Covington, Holder’s law firm, provided a report with recommendations, which included:
1. Employee Policies and Practices: The report recommended that policies should be applied consistently throughout the organization and that no special treatment should be given to any employee, regardless of level, tenure, or past performance. Uber should consider adopting a zero tolerance stance for violations of the anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, and anti-retaliation. policies no matter the level or performance of the perpetrator. In contrast with Susan Fowler’s experience, where her complaints were ignored because the alleged harasser “was a good engineer.”
2. Increase Diversity and Inclusion Efforts: Uber should utilize the Rooney Rule for women and underrepresented groups for key positions, wherein each pool of candidates interviewed for each identified position includes at least one woman and one member of an underrepresented minority group. Interviewing members of populations currently underrepresented in Uber’s workplace with appropriate consistency seeks to ensure an increase in diversity. The report stressed that both diversity and inclusion efforts are necessary to have a non-discriminatory workplace. Inclusion focuses not just on the presence of diverse employees, but on the inclusion and engagement of such employees in all aspects of an organization’s operations.
3. Better Human Resources Systems and Training: The report called for Uber, which has been heavily criticized for a management culture that is slow to respond to employee complaints, to make sure it had good tools in place to track employee data, including complaints.
4. Complaint Process: Uber should ensure it has appropriate tools, including complaint tracking software, to keep better track of complaints, personnel records, and employee data. Uber should enhance communication to employees concerning how and to whom they can raise complaints about harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. Uber should develop and communicate multiple avenues for lodging a complaint, including an employee’s immediate manager or next-level manager, the organization’s Human Resources Business Partner, or the Integrity Helpline. This encourages employees who may otherwise fear retaliation to come forward, knowing that there are multiple avenues they can utilize if they have a concern.
The Board took action.
Covington’s recommendations are to be fully incorporated to address the types of conduct described by Ms. Fowler and to achieve a workplace in which “all the great minds” work and succeed.
Five of Uber’s major investors demanded that the chief executive – Travis Kalanick – resign immediately, which he did on June 21, 2017. Kalanick will remain on the company's board of directors.
The attention that Ms. Fowler’s blog post has received is a step in the right direction.
It is likely also only the tip of the iceberg – an example of stories that happen every day but go untold or unheard.
Many have commented that this case highlights the ramifications of reporting discrimination and harassment in the workplace in a technological world. Beyond concerns of how reporting harassment might affect an employee internally in the office, there are serious concerns that an employee’s online reputation might be compromised.
Yet, Ms. Fowler told her story and it was heard.
Companies will have to think twice about their internal employment practices after Uber if they seek to avoid the reputational costs of handling such a public scandal.
Ineffective HR practices might silence employees who should be going to HR. The Uber experience illustrates that in an age of technology and rapidly spreading information, structural and consistent workplace discrimination can be reported externally and go viral online with significant consequences for the employee and the employer.
Thanks to Summer Associate Iva Popa for drafting this blog post.