The tech world is awash this week in phrases like “sexual harassment,” “toxic values,” and “#DeleterUber” after a blistering blog post from Susan J. Fowler went viral on Sunday night. The post describes the sexual harassment that Fowler experienced during her year working at the transportation company. And it has exploded everywhere, from BuzzFeed and TechCrunch to Recode, Vox, and Huffington Post.
Yet in all the noise that’s come down about the piece, there hasn’t been a real discussion of what appears to be the root cause of the problem: why Uber’s professional environment was allowed to reach this level of discrimination. Only by understanding that can Uber and other companies begin to reform their corporate policies and cultures.
We can already see the outlines of the usual responses of a corporation under fire for sexism and harassment: statements of outrage at the highest levels (Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Uber board member Arianna Huffington), assurances that these types of things do not represent the corporation’s ideals and will not be tolerated, promises of an investigation, the offending sexual harasser has already been shepherded out of the organization, and the HR managers who responded in such a woeful manner to Fowler’s complaint of sexual harassment undoubtedly will be next. And as necessary as these things are to hear and read, none of them will change anything in the long run because they fail to deal with the root causes.
Where the Problems Come From
As with any environment where sexism and discrimination exist, it all goes back to the corporate culture. And so to solve systemic issues, one must deal with the corporate culture. While the most incendiary aspects of Fowler’s post deal with sexual harassment and her experiences trying to report it, the harassment — which I will discuss in a moment — is but the symptom of a larger corporate issue of sexism.
In Uber’s case, the main problem can be distilled down to three main things:
- An environment where egalitarianism and respect were not prioritized.
- A weak and ineffective HR department with no real power.
- The evaluation of women through a prism of prejudice.
It thus becomes necessary to examine the typical corporate mentality, and how this mentality contributed to the current situation at Uber.
Ineffective and Reactive Corporate Mentality
As with most corporations, it is clear from Fowler’s post that Uber prioritized “high performance” and bottom line-data points over an egalitarian work environment. Time and again, Fowler describes reporting issues to mid-level and upper management, and receiving the typical — but completely inadequate response — of “well he’s a high performer,” or some such phrase.
Employees in any corporation will do what they believe they need to do to keep their jobs and to get promoted, and visa versa, will refrain from doing things that they believe will jeopardize their job security or advancement. If employees believe that sexual harassment will not be met with remedial action, they will feel empowered to engage in it. By contrast, if they feel that sexual harassment could get them fired, they may think twice before engaging in it. This is not complicated.
Elaborately stated corporate policies against sexual harassment, typically contained in an employee handbook, are a good first start but won’t by themselves end sexual harassment. Despite the best intentions at the highest levels of the corporation, it is clear that the message at Uber was not effectively communicated to the broad base of employees, including mid-level managers. Why this is so springs in large part from Uber’s corporate structure which is actually typical of most every corporation in America. Fowler’s post provides a public service because it reveals that the problem was also caused in part by Uber’s corporate organization.
HR with No Real Power
Fowler goes on to write in her post that she was told by upper management that they would not feel comfortable punishing the sexual harasser. This reveals three new things:
- The corporate priorities are to protect their fiscal bottom line.
- HR is not seen as contributing to the fiscal bottom line.
- As a result, upper management essentially makes all of HR’s decisions, and HR is essentially powerless. Given this, is it any wonder that HR told Fowler that they were not prepared to do anything?
Since the HR department recognized its inability to deal with the situation, it effectively told Fowler two important things:
- HR knew it was harassment, but that they were not prepared to do anything about it.
- Uber’s concern for the sexual harasser’s “high performance” was more important than Fowler’s right to work in a workplace free of sexual harassment.
In fact, HR’s response that it “wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part” highlights an intent on HR’s part to excuse sexual harassment and to marginalize victims of sexual harassment.
Here’s the main issue: most HR managers have to persuade the line managers to agree with their recommendations regarding appropriate remedial action. This inherently plays out in a conflict of interest for the managers who have no incentive to remedy sexual harassment if it will result in losing an executive who has generated revenue for the company.
Because so much of corporate upward mobility is tied to revenue generation, those who generate the most revenue and do so most efficiently are most likely to reap the rewards of that work (i.e. promotions, bonuses, etc.). As such, these managers have no corporate incentive to make waves, and every incentive to keep things quiet, and make sure they go away.
Thus, HR managers’ hands are tied in most cases since they typically do not have the power to override the mid-level managers. Even when outside consultants are brought in to “assess” the situation and recommend solutions, those solutions are only as effective as HR’s power to enforce them. Stripping HR of this power and incentive almost ensures that none of those potential solutions will be effective.
The real solution is to give the power to HR to decide upon the appropriate corporate response without the involvement of upper management, and even against the wishes of upper management, which institutionally will be loathe to part with a “highly performing” employee who is ostensibly contributing to that profit sector’s bottom line.
As Uber can now attest, a properly functioning HR department contributes substantially to the bottom line by avoiding the mess it is now in. It is time to view the HR departments as equal contributors to any corporation’s bottom line, and to give them the corresponding power to deal with issues such as sexual harassment which if not treated properly will substantially take away from a corporation’s bottom line.
A Vicious Cycle
It is clear from Ms. Fowler’s article that the sexual harassment did not exist in a vacuum. It was facilitated by sex discrimination throughout the corporation. I’m no statistician, but a diminution of women in the corporation from 25% to 6% would not seem to be explained by a suggestion that all those women left for better jobs or were inadequate performers. Especially in a universe where managers feel empowered to tell women that the corporation will buy leather jackets for the male employees but not for the female employees, it seems more likely than not that at least part of the reason for the reduction in female employees was caused by sexist attitudes in the corporation.
If those sexist attitudes are not eradicated, they will provide a warm Petri dish in which will grow the next cases of sexual harassment. Harassment, like any other resulting symptom, results from something, and in this case that something is a corporate environment that has been stunted in its ability to prevent such problems before they arise.
While attitudes and seminars are discussed regarding how to handle sexual harassment and/or discrimination issues when they arise, the real solution is to ensure an environment where that doesn’t happen, not because people are discouraged from reporting issues, but because people are discouraged from engaging in any inappropriate behavior in the first place.
At the same time, it should be made clear by action at the highest levels that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Diversity training should not only be mandatory, but it should be attended by the CEO, who by his or her simple presence will give it the importance it needs to be effective, or by his or her absence would give the unintended signal that profits are more important than dealing with the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination.
It is more difficult to deal with ingrained sexist attitudes than with the more obvious cases of sexual harassment. If management has a predisposition to view female engineers as somehow less talented, women will be judged through a prism of sexist attitudes, resulting in women receiving lower performance evaluations. Then the failure of women to advance in the corporation, or their dismissal, will be ostensibly explained by the lower performance evaluations. It is a vicious cycle: women are initially perceived as less talented than men, resulting in lower performance evaluations, which ostensibly “prove” that they were less talented after all.
Meltdown and How to Fix It
The response to Fowler’s blog post, in words at least, has been biblical. Coverage from all the major tech media sources, as well as incendiary tweets from a variety of high-powered individuals in the tech community. If Fowler hadn’t already been working at Stripe, she likely would have found her email inbox flooded with job offers this morning (my guess is that happened anyway).
Uber has the opportunity and ability here to actually effect immediate change and help its image — if it’s so inclined.
Kalanick responded to Fowler’s blog post with a staunch statement that the actions described therein are unacceptable and will be met with swift termination. Uber board member Arianna Huffington similarly voiced sentiment about how the Uber board intends to conduct an independent investigation and get to the bottom of the issues which led Fowler and other women to leave the company.
I’m glad to hear that Kalanick and Huffington appear to be taking this matter seriously. But doing an independent investigation — even if it turns up some managers behaving inappropriately — will do nothing in the long term unless Uber’s upper management is committed to adjusting its corporate philosophy and structure, and making sure that this change is felt throughout its ranks. Being outraged by Fowler’s experiences at Uber is a good first step. The next step is to deal with the root causes of her experiences.
If Kalanick and Huffington really want to effect change, there are three things they must do:
- They need to structure, or restructure, their HR department so that the Head of HR reports directly to Kalanick himself as CEO, and has the ability to override mid-level and upper-level management regarding appropriate remedial action.
- Kalanick and Huffington need to restructure the corporate mentality so that HR is not viewed as a drag on the company’s bottom line, but instead is seen as saving the company money by resolving these issues before they make their way into the public eye.
- Kalanick and the Uber board need to make it crystal clear that diversity and harassment seminars are mandatory, not simply suggested, and they should attend those seminars personally.
How Other Companies Can Be Proactive
Corporations at the highest level — and that means CEO’s — need to make it clear that sex discrimination and by extension sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They need to do this by not only saying so, but by acting so. They should give real power to HR departments to deal with sex discrimination and sexual harassment without the participation or approval of line management.
Managers whose subordinate employees are found to have engaged in sex discrimination or sexual harassment should see the trajectory of their careers affected just as if the profit sectors they manage had lost money. If sexism and sexual harassment cost employees their jobs, it hopefully won’t then happen. It’s just that simple.
Other companies would do well to examine their own corporate structures. While the hashtag #DeleteUber looks great in a tweet, it doesn’t actually change anything. Real change will only come when those who are supposed to deal with discrimination and sexual harassment have the power to do so, and when it is made clear at the highest levels that discrimination and sexual harassment will not be tolerated.