How a Stronger HR Function Could Have Helped Uber Avoid the Sexual Harassment Scandal

Don't blame HR for Uber's problems.

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By Lisa Haugh

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The last few weeks have been rough for Uber. In a blog post that went viral, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler told of being sexually harassed by a manager, disrespected by HR and ultimately blocked from transferring to a different team and advancing in her career at the company. In subsequent reporting, many have pointed a finger at CEO Travis Kalanick's alleged view of the function of human resources solely as recruiting and hiring, while little attention was paid to employee development, career coaching or manager training.

We on the outside may never know the "real" story, but this should be a cautionary tale for companies with similar attitudes toward HR. Uber wouldn't be the first aggressive startup to put revenue growth and recruiting above all else, including employee experience and company culture. According to Recode, Uber didn't even hire a head of HR until it had already hit 500 employees.

Related: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Says He Needs to 'Grow Up' after Video of Argument with a Driver Released

To its credit, Uber is taking action now, including hiring former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to investigate allegations of sexual discrimination and having Kalanick meet with more than 100 female engineers. However, Silicon Valley is small, and once a company's reputation is damaged, it's harder to convince people otherwise.

This highlights the reason companies have to take a strategic view of HR departments instead of only seeing them as mere recruiting centers. I'm really proud that, at Udemy, our team is called Employee Success, not HR or Human Capital Management. That was a very deliberate decision. We don't just hire people and leave them to fend for themselves; we make employee development and experience top priorities. They're core to our culture, we have measurable company goals around improving employee engagement, and employees understand we're invested in their success.

Here are a few ways companies can ensure employees feel valued and avoid having HR issues destroy productive work relationships:

Build a culture of inclusion and take it seriously.

Don't just pay lip service to the value of diversity; bake it into how you hire, manage and develop people. Accept the reality of unconscious bias and work tirelessly to educate your workforce on what it is and how to overcome it. Support grassroots efforts by your employees that celebrate diversity and inclusion in a way that is authentic to your company.

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

Train all managers.

Whether they were managers at previous jobs or have just been promoted from within, all new managers need training to understand exactly what your organization expects of them. At Udemy, for example, new and experienced managers alike go through our Learn to Lead program, which explains our talent philosophy and gives specific guidance on things like how to have difficult conversations, coach employees and assume a growth mindset.

Listen and respond.

When ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler spoke out, she ran up against a bureaucracy that seemed designed to marginalize concerns like hers. Employees need to be able to speak candidly about issues and feel confident that steps will be taken to resolve conflicts fairly. Documented policies and processes must be circulated for all to see and applied with consistency and transparency, regardless of who's involved. Most important, top management must prioritize and champion transparency and open dialog.

Related: What Businesses Can Learn from #DeleteUber

Show zero tolerance for bad behavior.

At Uber, according to Fowler's account, certain high-performers seemed to act with impunity as long as their contributions could be tied to revenue generation and growth. But at what greater cost? Much has been written about "brilliant jerks," and why it's not worth sacrificing effective teamwork and a healthy environment just to appease a few so-called rockstars.

Companies risk their long-term success when they regard workers as replaceable resources instead of assets to be nurtured. By empowering HR to offer employees meaningful support in their career journeys, they can increase engagement and retention and avoid making negative headlines.

Lisa Haugh

VP of People and General Counsel at Udemy

Lisa Haugh has more than 15 years of experience leading legal and HR functions for a range of startups and mature companies. At Udemy, she heads up all legal and human resource functions, including all hiring, training and diversity efforts. She received her BA from UCLA and her law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law.  

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