Accusations of sexism, cut-throat management, and a toxic work environment have Uber trying to pull its image out of a skid as competition revs in the on-demand ride market.
“Experienced managers know how to prevent these kinds of problems, or make it look like there isn’t a problem at all,” analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group said while discussing Uber’s travails.
“It is showcasing a severe lack of skill at the top.”
Uber hired former attorney general Eric Holder to review workplace conditions after an ex-employee alleged sexual harassment and sexism at the firm.
Susan Fowler, an engineer who worked at Uber until the end of last year, said in a blog post that her manager made sexual advances shortly after she joined the company.
She said she complained to upper managers and the human resources department, but was told that it was the man’s “first offense” and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing a “high performer.”
Fowler told of later meeting other women engineers at the company who said they had experienced similar harassment, including inappropriate behavior from the same manager she had reported.
Men engineers were gifted leather jackets, while women were left out, she noted.
“In the background, there was a game-of-thrones political war raging within the ranks of upper management in the infrastructure engineering organization,” Fowler said, comparing the scene to a hit fantasy television drama in which rival nobles viciously vie for power.
“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.”
A New York Times report on Friday depicted a “Hobbesian environment” at Uber in which workers were pitted against one another and misbehavior by top performers was overlooked.
The story included tales of a director shouting a homophobic slur in a meeting; a manager threatening to beat an underperforming worker with a baseball bat, and women employees groped at a Las Vegas retreat where cocaine was used in bathrooms during private parties.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said that Holder and another attorney will look into issues raised by Fowler, “as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly.”
Holder was former US president Barack Obama’s attorney general between 2009 and 2015.
The lawyers were to be aided by journalist Arianna Huffington, who is a member of the Uber board.
The controversy threatened to revive a #DeleteUber campaign triggered by Kalanick’s short-lived plan to be part of a business advisory group for US President Donald Trump.
Kalanick quit the group under pressure from a growing movement to stop using the ride-sharing service because of his connection to the new administration, and by extension an anti-immigrant agenda.
As the campaign picked up speed, rival Lyft’s popularity accelerated.
“Now, they are facing yet another avoidable backlash where people are disconnecting themselves from the (Uber) app,” analyst Enderle said.
“Lyft is likely the biggest beneficiary, but at the same time, Google is coming to market with its Waze carpool service — this is the wrong time for Uber to have this.”
Meanwhile, the race to develop self-driving vehicles took a turn on Thursday when Google’s parent company Alphabet filed a lawsuit against Uber, accusing it of using stolen technology.
Alphabet contends that a manager at its autonomous car subsidiary Waymo took technical data with him when he left to launch a competing venture that went on to become Otto, Uber’s self-driving vehicle unit, in a reported $680 million deal.
Waymo is calling for a trial to stop Otto and Uber from using technology taken in a “calculated theft.”
Waymo also wants unspecified damages in what it described in court documents as “an action for trade secret misappropriation, patent infringement and unfair competition.”
San Francisco-based Uber acquired commercial transport-focused tech startup Otto last year as it pressed ahead with a pursuit of self-driving technology.
“We take the allegations made against Otto and Uber employees seriously and we will review this matter carefully,” an Uber spokeswoman said.
In the eyes of consumers, Uber’s controversies pack together into “a snowball of trouble rolling down the hill getting bigger and bigger,” said brand management specialists Bruce Turkel.
Once people switch to a new ride-hailing app, they are likely to stick with it and forget about using Uber, according to analysts.
“Uber can do all the damage control they want, it’s not going to change who they are at their very core,” Turkel said.
“And, unfortunately, when you watch Travis Kalanick when he is on TV or whatever, he has that frat boy kind of attitude anyway. So, when you hear about sexual harassment, it actually fits.”
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