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Former Uber engineer says company ignored repeated reports of sexual harassment

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In this Dec. 16, 2015 file photo a man leaves the headquarters of Uber in San Francisco
Image Credits: Eric Risberg / AP

Former Uber site reliability engineer Susan Fowler accused the company of rampant sexual harassment and human resources negligence in a blog post published today. 

It’s the latest in a series of events that point to serious questions about Uber’s company culture.

Fowler claims that on her first day out of training, she was solicited for sex by a superior on an internal company chat thread. She then immediately captured screenshots of the messages and sent them to Uber’s human resources department. In a healthy organization, such a problem would have been resolved quickly. But Fowler alleges that the harassment only continued, preventing her from moving up within the company.

“Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part,” explained Fowler in her post.

At this point, Fowler says in her post that she was given a choice of remaining on the team and accepting, “a poor performance review,” or moving to a different team.

“I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that,” further explained Fowler.

Though she didn’t want to leave the role she felt she was best prepared to fill, she switched teams. Work continued, and while Fowler had settled into the new role she regularly had conversations with female employees who shared similar stories about HR negligence, even citing unacceptable experiences with the same superior who solicited her. Along with a number of her colleagues, Fowler met once again with HR to make the point that the experiences of harassment were epidemic. Fowler then says that Uber insisted that the manager had only been accused of a single offense.

Amid chaotic internal politics, Fowler attempted to transfer to a different department, but the company blocked her request. Citing strong performance, she couldn’t understand why her request had been denied.

“I was told that ‘performance problems aren’t always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life,’” added Fowler in her post.

She ultimately decided to stay in the same role until her next performance review. But the frustration continued with a second reassignment rejection and a further explanation that her “review had been changed after the fact,” and that she didn’t show “signs of an upward career trajectory.” As a result, she was shut out of a company-sponsored Stanford computer science graduate program for high-achievers.

Aside from these claims, Fowler also describes in her post a culture of pervasive sexism — telling the story of an employee who refused to order jackets in women’s sizing because they cost more. No matter how many complaints she brought forth, HR insinuated that she was the common denominator in all of her complaints. Fowler says she was threatened and intimidated in an effort  to stop her from reporting transgressions to HR.

In response to Fowler’s post, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick promised to investigate the claims. In a statement to Axios, Kalanick made a point to draw a dichotomy between the accused behavior and what the CEO believes is core to the company’s culture:

“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 behavior at Uber — and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.”

Uber board member and media mogul Arianna Huffington said in a tweet that she would conduct an “independent investigation” into the matter. Huffington even released her email address in an effort to make it easier for those with information to come forward.

Sexual harassment is rampant in Silicon Valley, and the worst part is that most of it goes undocumented. If true, Uber’s actions to thwart Fowler’s efforts to report the repeated harassment paint a horrifying picture of the company’s internal culture.

Uber is no stranger to being in the negative spotlight when it comes to company culture — not just with interpersonal relationships, but in its bigger business model and how it interfaces in the competitive environment for transportation services. In 2014, one of its senior executives (who is still at the company) told a room full of journalists that Uber runs opposition research on its critics. One of the critics singled out had been very outspoken (along with many others) about how Uber does not take passenger safety seriously enough.

Uber has, in fact, been the subject of specific incidents involving passenger safety, and, on a wider competitive level, it’s been accused and occasionally banned for its practices in specific markets. Other accusations involve privacy violations over the access of customer data (some of which have since been settled, some of which still crop up today).

We still don’t know the number of female engineers at Uber because the company hasn’t been transparent about its hiring — Jesse Jackson has made it his priority to change this. But even if Kalanick weren’t complicit, Fowler’s experience could speak to how Uber values employee performance with respect to ethics and decency.

We have reached out to Uber and CEO Travis Kalanick and will update this post when we hear back.

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