Uber Needs to Recreate its Company Culture. Here's What You Can Learn From Its Mistakes.
This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Company Culture, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
During a Tuesday meeting to discuss an overhaul of Uber’s company culture, former board member David Bonderman proved exactly why the conversations needed to happen in the first place.
At the start of the all-hands meeting, Arianna Huffington, who was the first woman to join the company’s board last year, announced the addition of Nestlé executive Wan Ling Martello to the board, increasing the representation of women on the board from 14 to 25 percent.
“There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” Huffington noted.
That’s when Bonderman interrupted.
“Actually what it shows is it’s much likely to be more talking.”
In the recording obtained by Yahoo Finance, you can hear Huffington respond at first with awkward laughter. And then her reply: “Oh. Come on, David. Don’t worry, David will have a lot more talking to do as well.”
That is not to be the case, as Bonderman resigned shortly after the meeting, which, it bears repeating, was convened to talk about recommendations to change Uber's culture after allegations of systemic discrimination and sexual harassment.
Bonderman, the 74-year-old founding partner of investment firm TPG Capital, apologized for the “disrespectful” comment via an internal memo to Uber employees and issued this statement about his departure:
"I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud. I need to hold myself to the same standards that we're asking Uber to adopt. Therefore, I have decided to resign from Uber's board of directors, effective tomorrow morning."
Earlier on Tuesday, CEO Travis Kalanick also announced that he would be taking a leave of absence in order to, as he shared in an email to the company, “take some time off of the day-to-day to grieve my mother, whom I buried on Friday, to reflect, to work on myself, and to focus on building out a world-class leadership team. The ultimate responsibility, for where we’ve gotten and how we’ve gotten here rests on my shoulders,” Kalanick wrote. “There is of course much to be proud of but there is much to improve. For Uber 2.0 to succeed there is nothing more important than dedicating my time to building out the leadership team. But if we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve.”
So what exactly is Uber 2.0 going to look like?
Over the past few months, former attorney general Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán, partners at law firm Covington & Burling, were tasked with investigating the allegations made by former engineer Susan Fowler and others.
They interviewed more than 200 Uber employees and provided a set of recommendations pertaining to how the company should address discrimination, harassment and retaliation and how it could “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 recommendations include:
- Providing more support for the human resources department and establishing clear protocols to track complaints.
- Mandatory training for senior executives, HR staffers, managers and people in the position to interview prospective employees, particularly around the topics of promoting inclusion and combatting unconscious bias.
- In terms of recruiting and developing talent, implementing a blind resume review, and increased transparency when it comes to performance reviews and promotions.
- The prohibition of romantic or intimate relationships between supervisor/subordinates and the consumption of alcohol during work hours, at after work events and at company-sponsored events.
- An update of discrimination and harassment policies including instituting a zero-tolerance policy for violators of those rules -- no matter what position they hold in the company -- and explicit protection against harassment from not only other employees, but third-parties the company deals with such as clients to vendors.
A lot of these seem quite standard. But when you look at former engineer Susan Fowler’s blog post and Kalanick’s 2013 Miami letter side by side, the necessity for Holder and Albarrán to explicitly state things such as the importance of “de-emphasizing alcohol as a component of work events,” or that policies should be applied consistently across the company with no special treatment afforded to any one employee is pretty glaring.
One passage in particular about Uber’s 14 cultural values speaks volumes about where Uber ran aground. Holder and Albarrán recommended that the company communicate with its employees to reassess and develop a core list of values that are accessible and easy to understand.
“Eliminate those values which have been identified as redundant or as having been used to justify poor behavior, including Let Builders Build, Always Be Hustlin’, Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping, and Principled Confrontation; and encourage senior leaders to exhibit the values on a daily basis and to model a more collaborative and inclusive Uber culture," the recommendation reads. "Leaders who embody these values should be part of the process of redefining Uber’s values and should be role models for other leaders within the company.”
Uber has long had a reputation for aggressive tactics in its dealings with regulators and competitors. It was seen, for better or worse, as one of the key drivers of its rapid growth. But clearly, as Uber’s experience shows us, growth and success are not one in the same.
In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2014, Kara Swisher asked Kalanick about the nature of the interactions with the leaders of the cities (some of whom he described as “really awesome, but most are uninspired”) his business was disrupting.
“If you don’t agree with the core principles, which are the premise of that compromise, then you have to have what I call principled confrontation. And so that is the thing that we do that I think can rub some people the wrong way.”
If you’re beginning with the premise that compromise doesn’t work for you, and every interaction is a war of attrition, you can let people build all they want, but what exactly are you working toward?
If you’re always hustlin’ -- though if they do keep that one, I would urge them to restore the “g” to its rightful place -- you don’t stop to think about where the pitfalls may be or whether you might be in the wrong. Uber’s experience shows us that is kind of approach is a recipe for collapsing under the weight of your own hubris.
In Uber’s San Francisco headquarters, up until this week, the office’s main conference room was called aptly, the War Room. Bloomberg reported that along with the multitude of changes recommended by Covington & Burling, the room is now going to be called the Peace Room. It’s a bit on nose, but you can appreciate the thought, as long as it's not just lip service.
Uber’s culture is not going to change overnight, but now the company seems to have the self-awareness and tools in place to build an environment where values aren’t used, as per Holder and Albarrán’s description, to “justify poor behavior.”
So what can we learn from Uber’s newfound emphasis on internal, rather than external growth? Company culture isn’t about perks or empty aphorisms that look good on a T-shirt. Simply, people want to be heard, they want their work to be valued and they want to be treated with respect. When you build your company culture, start there.