Uber details early steps to change culture, and ongoing COO search

Uber held a special press call on Tuesday, hosted by board member Arianna Huffington and staffed with three of its highest ranking female staff, including North American operations lead Rachel Holt, Chief HR officer Liane Hornsey and company comms lead Rachel Whetstone. The call was pretty clearly an attempt to counter-message some of the negative press Uber has faced, specifically around its culture and accusations of sexism.

Huffington kicked off the chat, acting as a sort of proxy for CEO Travis Kalanick and reiterating the founder’s commitment to accepting responsibility for the current state of Uber’s culture, and also responsibility for the transformation Uber is currently pursuing as a result. She highlighted Uber’s search for a COO, someone who can be a “true partner” to Kalanick, as part of this commitment. Kalanick’s absence on the call was explained using the COO search process at one point, as Whetstone later answered a press question as to his whereabouts by saying that he was busy with the COO interview process, as was board member and investor Bill Gurley, who is leading the board subcommittee responsible for the executive search.

Once again, Huffington also said that she’s going to be “holding [Uber’s] feet to the fire” with respect to their commitment to following through on their plan to truly effect change in the future. She said that there’s no longer any room for “brilliant jerks” at the company, and added that the ultimate goal is not just to “fix” what’s broken at Uber, but to actually make it “the most admired workplace to work at.”

Huffington also said that she is independent from the ongoing investigation into sexual harassment claims and Uber’s culture lead by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, despite a claim from Kalanick made previously that Huffington would be involved in the investigation. She did say that the board, and the entire company, including Kalanick, is committed to accepting and abiding by whatever findings Holder delivers, and that the results of his investigation will also be made public at the time of his final report.

Responding to a reported question that implied Uber had intentionally stacked the call with female employees for the sake of optics, Huffington responded that she believed it was actually very “exciting” to have so many women on the call. “It’s not like we called them from central casting,” she added, noting that Holt, Hornsey and Whetstone really do run significant aspects of the day-to-day business at the ride-hailing company.

Hornsey followed Huffington’s introduction, noting that being at the company is “exactly” where she wants to be given its current challenges and her interest in being a driver of significant change in her professional role. She added that Kalanick has given her “full license” to do what’s necessary to improve its culture and organizational structure. The focus at Uber, she added, has been on the business, and not on the employees, which is very problematic for a company that has grown to the size Uber is currently.

The focus of Hornsey and her department, then, is on putting the right organizational design in place to support the “best culture,” she said. To that end, the company has conducted “over 100 listening sessions” to date, and has established nine separate areas of focus to work on in pursuit of overall improvement. A key part of this effort is a renewed focus on “diversity and inclusion,” Hornsey said.

Uber will release its first diversity and inclusion report by the end of March, in accordance with that goal. It has also updated 1,500 job descriptions to “ensure they’re free from bias and discrimination,” Hornsey added, and it’s working with employees to revamp its performance management system, which it has found to be “unfair and inequitable” through talks with staff. It will also begin rolling out training to “educate and inform employees” on a range of subjects, including “why diversity matters.”

Holt addressed Uber’s current state of business, detailing how the company has actually continued to see strong growth and gains despite the torrent of negative publicity its received. She acknowledged that the company needs to repair its relationships with drivers, including providing them with more input when it comes to setting fares.

Uber also addressed the issue of whether it ever considered Kalanick leaving the CEO role as a response to its ongoing problems, which include an outburst by him to a driver caught on tape via dashcam. Huffington dismissed discussion of any such hypotheticals by the board, and lauded Kalanick’s role in creating the ride-hailing industry as well as Uber as its primary success story.

Asked whether women, too, would be involved in the COO search, given its importance to the company’s transformation plan and considering that the excuse for the absence of both Kalanick and Gurley was their participation in COO interviews, Hornsey responded that “absolutely” herself and other high-ranking female Uber employees would be participating in the interview process.