Uber is not known for treating its drivers particularly well, but it gets worse: According to allegations from ex-engineer Susan J. Fowler, the ridesharing app has a culture of misogyny, and threatened to fire her after she reported sexual harassment. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has already responded to the allegations, saying in a statement to Gizmodo, “What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.”
In a blog post titled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber“, Fowler alleges that when she began as the Site Reliability Engineer in late 2015, her boss solicited her for sex. In her own words:
On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.
When Fowler first met with HR, she says they told her “even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offence … he ‘was a high performer'” meaning upper management wouldn’t punish him with anything more than “a warning and a stern talking-to”. She transferred teams. When she later became friends with other women at Uber, she says many had experiences similar to her own. Fowler claims they told her “stories about reporting the exact same manager [she] had reported, and had [also] reported inappropriate interactions with him”.
After that, Fowler alleges, she and some other women engineers at Uber scheduled new meetings with HR “to insist that something be done”. She describes her meeting:
[T]he rep I spoke with told me that he had never been reported before, he had only ever committed one offence (in his chats with me), and that none of the other women who they met with had anything bad to say about him, so no further action could or would be taken. It was such a blatant lie that there was really nothing I could do. There was nothing any of us could do. We all gave up on Uber HR and our managers after that.
In a statement Uber sent Gizmodo, CEO Travis Kalanick promised to investigate Fowler’s claims and fire “anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK”. Kalanick’s statement below:
I have just read Susan Fowler’s blog. What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in. It’s the first time this has come to my attention so I have instructed Liane Hornsey, our new Chief Human Resources Officer, to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations. We seek to make Uber a just workplace and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behaviour at Uber — and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.
Fowler’s claims about the chaos of working at Uber extends beyond ignored sexual harassment claims. She writes, emphasis ours:
[T]here was a game-of-thrones political war raging within the ranks of upper management in the infrastructure engineering organisation. It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job… The ramifications of these political games were significant: projects were abandoned left and right.
Not only this, but she says that after receiving a great performance review, she requested again to transfer teams. Higher-ups allegedly told Fowler that her “performance review and score had been changed after the official reviews had been calibrated”, and it was now negative, meaning she had to stay put. Although Uber wouldn’t specify what performance problems Fowler had — she claims she “completed all OKRs on schedule, never missed a deadline even in the insane organizational chaos” — the company told her not to worry because it had no real-world consequences.
But of course it did. Aside from its impact on her salary and bonus, Fowler says she was enrolled in an Uber-sponsored Stanford CS graduate program for high-performing employees, which she no longer qualified for thanks to her now bad performance review. Then she found out the reason why it was changed:
It turned out that keeping me on the team made my manager look good, and I overheard him boasting to the rest of the team that even though the rest of the teams were losing their women engineers left and right, he still had some on his team.
After filing many more HR reports due to this sort of treatment, Fowler says her manager threatened to fire her because she was speaking out. When she told him that was illegal, and reported it to the CTO and again, HR, “none of them did anything”.
“I had a new job offer in my hands less than a week later,” she writes. Currently Fowler works as an engineer for Stripe. Gizmodo reached out to Fowler to further inquire about her time at Uber, but did not get an immediate response.
These new allegations are more bad news for Uber, which has not been having a great year. After a massively successful #DeleteUber campaign, which protested Kalanick’s weak response to the Muslim ban and his involvement in Trump’s business advisory council, the company lost 200,000 customers. After that, the CEO severed ties with the US president in an attempt to earn back customers, but the company is seemingly unable to avoid scandals.
The company has also been accused of union-busting, had to pay out $US20 million ($26 million) to workers after promising drivers “exaggerated” wages, lost $US2.2 billion ($2.8 billion) in 2016, has a murder problem and doesn’t always do a great job of handling customers’ sexual harassment claims.
In his response to Fowler’s claims, Kalanick said, “We seek to make Uber a just workplace and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behaviour at Uber.” Even if Uber somehow fixes its internal culture of sexual harassment and misogyny, how can the company be a truly “just” workplace if it continues to refuse to treat its drivers as employees?