We are all watching and reading how Uber is responding to yet the latest scandal and legal problem to confront the on-demand ride service giant. About a week ago, a former Uber employee, Susan Fowler, posted a blog about why she left Uber last December. Susan alleges (and these are only allegations at this point) that during her one year at Uber as an engineer, she was subject to harassment and a rampant sexist culture at Uber, and when she complained, Uber did nothing.
In her Blog – posted so that anyone in the world can read – Susan makes some salacious allegations including that, shortly after she joined Uber, her male manager messaged her that “he was looking for women to have sex with.” Susan believed that this meant he wanted to have sex with her. Susan claims that she took screenshots of the messages (which she does not post on her blog) and reported the manager to Uber’s human resources (HR). Susan complains that she expected HR to take swift action. I read this to mean she wanted the manager fired. She was dismayed that HR told her it was the manager’s first offense and he would get a warning. Susan further claims that she was then given the option that she could either (1) move to another team or (2) stay on the same team and be subject to retaliation. (This last allegation seems incredible on its face, but that’s Susan’s story.)
Apparently, Susan made the choice to go to another team within Uber. But, she apparently began to hear “stories” from other females that they had experienced similar behavior from the same manager. Susan concluded that Uber “lied” to her when it told her this was the manager’s first offense. She goes on to say:
Myself and a few of the women who had reported him in the past decided to all schedule meetings with HR to insist that something be done. In my meeting, the rep I spoke with told me that he had never been reported before, he had only ever committed one offense (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. Eventually he “left” the company. I don’t know what he did that finally convinced them to fire him.
Susan further alleges that there was rampant sexism at Uber, which was preventing her from being promoted. She provides her own statistics of how Uber’s female employees were leaving and gives an example of female employees not getting leather jackets, when male employees did.
Now, keep in mind that at this point, we know nothing about what Uber’s HR actually did or did not do in response to Susan’s complaint. We do not have Uber’s statistics with regard to female hiring or retention rates. We do not know why her manager actually left Uber. All we know is Susan’s side of the story. And, to tell that “story,” she did not have to file a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC, pay a lawyer for advice, or serve Uber with a lawsuit. Rather, Susan has inflicted a perhaps crippling blow to Uber’s public image – by blogging a one-sided story with no concrete evidence from the comfort (probably) of her couch. The bad publicity imposed on the billion dollar company cannot be quantified.
Now, I don’t profess to know whether the allegations are true or not true, but I do know that Uber has since gone into extreme damage control. You need only to google “Uber Sexual Harassment” and hundreds of stories pop up within the last 24 hours. Reports are that Uber has hired former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to help lead an investigation into the claims. Uber Board Member Arianna Huffington (founder of the Huffington Post) is also involved, as well as a high profile law firm.
The key question to me is whether all of this could have been avoided. And, as an employment attorney, I would like to say yes to that question. Of course, I would like to give my clients some comfort in knowing that if they follow certain prescribed steps, they will be immune from this type of bad press. I am afraid I cannot. While lots of sources are opining on what Uber could have done better to address the alleged harassment, discrimination or retaliation, I am not sure that a company can truly prevent social media lashings that occur as a matter of course in the connected world we live in. Perhaps not every company faces it on such a big a scale as Uber in this case. However, employers must be ready for dealing with bad press levied out by employees who feel wronged in one way or another. Employees have an immediate forum to air their concerns (founded or unfounded) oftentimes to the detriment of their employers. And, employers have to come to grips with this new world of employee complaints. In most situations, if employee complaints are handled properly internally, employees like Susan would not resort to blogging about their gripes, opinions, and experiences. But the truth is that employers simply cannot control the message all of the time. And that pill is a hard one to swallow.