How Uber Proved That 1 Person Cannot Change a Company Culture
"Wife Appreciation Day" doesn't mean letting your spouse "take a day off from the kitchen."
Believe it or not, they’ve done it again. Last weekend, Uber’s food delivery service, UberEats, ran a promotion for Wife Appreciation Day. But, instead of reminding customers to be extra supportive and loving to their spouses on Sept. 17, the company sent messages to customers in Bangalore encouraging them to “let your wives take a day off from the kitchen.”
Understandably, when Bozoma Saint John, Uber’s new chief brand ambassador, heard about the sexist promotion, she immediately shared her disapproval.
Yet, even while Saint John is working hard to change Uber’s “boys' club” culture, she’s fighting a losing battle on her own. The truth is, no matter what the company size, it’s naive to think that one person can change an ingrained, toxic culture.
“Outliers and change agents are lonely,” Andi Simon, founder and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., said by email. “The core cultural values, beliefs and behaviors are usually pervasive. People still share the same jokes, the same stories and same perceptions of what is important, valued and respected.”
Sure, one person can come up with an amazing strategy to effect change, but it takes effort from the entire company to make it happen. Here are four ways to ensure an agent of change is successful:
Get everyone on the same page.
“‘Fixer’ roles, like chief diversity officers, end up feeling like appendages to an organization rather than an integrated component, because sole responsibility for change is placed on their shoulders,” Chris Powell, CEO of Talmetrix in Cincinnati, Ohio, told me via email. “True, sustainable change to culture requires a shared belief system as a collective organization. It takes the entire workforce as a unit, from executives to managers to entry-level workers.”
To do this, a company has to do more than just communicate the new strategy to its employees. They need to understand why the change is important and how it will end up benefiting the company. And a one-time memo isn’t enough.
After the changes are announced, give people a chance to digest things. Then after a few weeks, give them an opportunity to voice concerns or ask questions. This can be done in small groups, or individually, as long as everyone has time to sit down with leadership and get comfortable with the new way of doing things.
Return to the basics.
Even the most experienced businessperson can benefit from revisiting the fundamentals. Doing the same thing over and over can cause people to forget the true purpose behind an activity. This is exactly what happened with Uber; its leaders forgot the purpose of brand promotion.
“Promotions are meant to ‘promote’ a brand. To promote means to elevate to a higher level, to advance position,” Larry Light, CEO of Arcature in Delray Beach, Fla. pointed out in an email. “The company is currently fighting an image issue that is focused on misogyny. Yet, they decided to ‘promote’ their brand relying on an out-of-date message that insults and degrades.”
By taking time to reconsider why a business does something and honoring its basic purpose, people can avoid making mistakes that will hurt the brand.
Align actions with goals.
When a company sets new goals -- like a change to its culture -- actions have to work toward those goals. Often, what's needed is a conscious check.
“Uber’s latest mishap could have easily been avoided by vetting the idea thoroughly within the organization and asking the right questions: ‘How does this help us achieve our goals?’ and ‘Will this resonate with our target audience and create a positive experience with our brand?’” were the sample questions Brad Deutser suggested. He's president and CEO of Deutser LLC in Houston. “It seems straightforward, but you would be surprised how often these common sense tactics are overlooked,” Deutser added.
Questions like this will help people ease into the new culture changes. Instead of blindly following new directions, people can stop and think about their actions and why new behavior is important. Going through a thought process will get them more invested in the new culture and values.
Have a diverse decision check.
When a company tries to be more inclusive, it needs to consider multiple viewpoints when making decisions. This will prevent one person -- or one type of person -- from overlooking how an action could be offensive.
For global brands, like Uber, which has offices in countries with distinct cultures, this is particularly important.
“Uber is now under immense consumer and media scrutiny,” New York-based Tyler Perry, partner and general manager of Bateman Group, said in an email. “They need to be incredibly careful with their outbound marketing efforts and make sure a global brand lens is applied to all local markets.”
Perry went on to advise getting the perspectives of women, people of color and other underrepresented groups before making decisions that can cause ripples. While this might seem to add an unnecessary number of levels of bureaucracy, that shouldn't be the focus. The focus should be to bring more people to the decision-making table -- to make sure the right people are in those chairs.
Instead of hiring one person of diversity, and putting him or her in one role the way Uber tried to do with Saint John, the ride-sharing company -- in fact, all companies -- should focus on instituting diverse decision-makers at all levels.