3 Lessons Every CEO Can Learn From Travis Kalanick's Emotional Meeting With Uber's Female Engineers

One of the engineers took the CEO to task about the harmful culture of Uber and its peers.

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By Nina Zipkin

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Travis Kalanick

As Uber has been forced this week to contend with allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination following former engineer Susan Fowler Rigetti's account of her year at the car hailing company, more has been revealed about the state of the controversial startup's company culture.

Particularly damning were a series of anonymously reported incidents detailed in a New York Times piece published earlier this week. "One Uber manager groped a female co-worker's breasts at a company retreat in Las Vegas. A director shouted a homophobic slur at a subordinate during a heated confrontation in a meeting. Another manager threatened to beat an underperforming employee's head in with a baseball bat."

Related: Before You Delete Your Account, Uber Wants You to Know It's 'Deeply Hurting'

CEO Travis Kalanick has brought on former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and attorney Tammy Albarran to oversee the investigation of the claims, and has held a series of meetings with employees. On Tuesday, there was a company wide meeting, and on Thursday, Kalanick met with a group of more than 100 female engineers to hear their concerns.

"I think for years in tech we've been saying "if there is a systemic problem there' and 'where is the data to suggest that there is a systemic problem there?' We have the data, we have the the anecdotes, we have it happening in our backyard," said a female engineer in an audio recording obtained by Buzzfeed. "When are we going to get together and say that there is a systemic problem here and stop using hypotheticals?"

Related: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Launches Investigation Into Sexual Harassment Claims

Kalanick's first response was that he believed that the answer to that question began with the belief that Holder and Albarran would get to the truth, but the engineer pushed back on that line of thinking.

"I think it starts before that. I think it starts with listening to your own people. I think that over the past several years, if we were listening to our own people, we would already believe wholeheartedly that the systemic problem was here," the engineer replied. "I don't think we would need, as esteemed as Eric Holder is, we need this investigation, and it is great that we have his help. But I do not think that we need his help in admitting to ourselves as a company and a family that we have a systemic problem here."

Related: Uber Under Fire Once Again Following Sexism and Harassment Claims

While his first response was brief, saying "fair enough, I understand," Kalanick revisited the question later in the meeting, with a more lengthy response:

"There are people in this room who have experienced things that are incredibly unjust. And I understand. I don't understand in a way that I have experienced myself, but I have had family members who have seen the kinds of things that you have seen, here or elsewhere. So I empathize with you. But I can never fully understand and get that. I want to root out the injustice. I want to get at the people who are making this place a bad place. And you have my commitment to make that happen. And I know it doesn't end there. I know that it's not just about when somebody is physically harmed or what have you, it is about the notion that even talking in the ways some of you have been talked to, that is part of the overall problem. I just want to make it clear that I understand. I understand that this is bigger than the Susan [Fowler] situation. And I want you to know that I am all about rooting this out and being very aggressive about that while also being supportive and empathetic and trying to build that support and empathy throughout the organization. … It's a little bit emotional for me and I'm sorry. I'm sure it's emotional for some of you too."

Related: Politically Charged Boycotts Explained, From Uber to Under Armour

There are a few lessons that any CEO can learn from Kalanick's response. He says that he is empathetic and that he will be dogged in his pursuit of the actors that are making the company a "bad place," but he incorrectly does not include himself as one of the contributing factors to what the company has become.

In every aspect of building your business, these three takeaways will always apply: Listen to your employees about what is important to them. Hold yourself accountable for the culture you create. And never forget that you are not just a face of a company, but a human being that is fallible and can make mistakes.

Nina Zipkin

Entrepreneur Staff

Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.

Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.

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