Uber’s Travis Kalanick Leaves a Sexist Workplace Culture in his Wake

Many credit Travis Kalanick with “building” Uber, the ride-sharing and delivery service company, after his own image and in his own style. He is often described as bold, brash and unapologetic – a frat-boy whose personality seems stamped all over the massive company that experienced such rapid growth that it expanded into cities over the heated objections of politicians with the help of excessive smear campaigns designed to bully obstacles out of the way. The strategy was an effective one for years. In fact, Uber grew into a $70 billion business before suddenly running into some bumpy roads.

The bumps came in the form of a cascade of sexual harassment allegations and public relations disasters that finally led to Kalanick’s resignation as Uber’s CEO. Kalanick’s resignation comes just a week after Uber announced that he would take an indefinite leave of absence at the recommendation of a report by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who was commissioned to conduct an investigation into Uber’s “toxic” workplace culture.

The temporary dismissal of Uber’s frat-boy founder apparently wasn’t enough to waylay the fears of nervous investors. The New York Times reported that five of Uber’s top investors demanded Kalanick resign. The ultimatum was delivered in a letter titled, “Moving Uber Forward.” In the letter, the five investors demanded a change of leadership and Kalanick agreed. While Kalanick resigned as CEO, he will keep a seat on Uber’s board of directors.

Almost from its very founding, Uber has been putting out fires on a number of issues. They have dealt with accusations of driver mistreatment: hired as independent contractors in order to avoid the costs of health insurance and overtime. They have dealt with political opposition in a number of locations over concerns regarding the largely unregulated model of livery service as well as the potentially negative impact that hundreds or thousands of new cars on city streets could have. They have faced significant fines due to failing to ensure their drivers adhered to anti-discrimination laws. The first massive blow came in 2015 when the state’s Labor Commission ruled in favor of drivers in the argument of misclassification.

Uber’s response to all of the above was to launch counter-offensives. For instance, when facing opposition in New York City, Uber launched a multi-million ad campaign targeting Mayor Bill de Blasio and other opposing politicians. In Seattle, Uber hired a firm liked to the CIA to investigate the city’s union laws when Uber drivers were offered the right to bargain collectively. And in cities everywhere, Uber utilized “greyball” software to evade government regulators and disguise the accurate depth of operations.

Dozens of Uber passengers have filed lawsuits alleging rape, kidnapping, assault, harassment, etc. with the additional claims that the company next to nothing to prevent them from happening. Reports have also circulated of aggressive tactics being considered as retribution against journalists who attempted to expose the more shady side of the company. And the boardroom reeked of problems as well. In a publicly shared blog post, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler outlined several instances of sexual harassment, which were all followed by a complete disregard on the part of executives with which she shared her concerns.

Granted, this is the same company:

  • That signed off on an ad campaign built around the phrase “hot chick” drivers.
  • That hired a senior VP who had been fired from a previous job for sexual harassment.
  • Whose founder and CEO referred to the company as “Boober.”

Earlier this month, Uber fired more than 20 employees as a result of an investigation into hundreds of sexual harassment, discrimination, and workplace retaliation claims. Yet the sexist culture prevails. On the same day the repot about corporate sexism was released to the public, a board member cracked a sexist joke to Arianna Huffington, a fellow board member. The offender quickly resigned, yet it serves as proof of the strength of the “legacy” left behind by the departing Kalanick.

If you have concerns regarding workplace retaliation or if you experience discrimination or harassment on the job, please get in touch with one of the experienced employment law attorneys at California’s Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.