Silicon Valley may lead the world with tech innovations, but according to former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, it falls short in the area of sexual equality in the workplace. That was brought home this weekend when Fowler posted a blog about the sexual harassment she endured while employed at Uber. She described an environment of not only being asked for sexual favors by a supervisor on numerous occasions, but an HR department that was dismissive and failed to do anything about it:
After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.
When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.
She was told that her assailant was a high-performance employee and her complaint was the first, and she should give him the benefit of doubt. She later learned that numerous others had complained as well.
Over the next few months, I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company. It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being “his first offense”, and it certainly wasn’t his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his “first offense”. The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.
Additionally, she describes how she was penalized and denied new job opportunities, in spite of outstanding performance reviews, all because she complained:
Once I had finished up my projects and saw that things weren’t going to change, I also requested a transfer. I met all of the qualifications for transferring – I had managers who wanted me on their teams, and I had a perfect performance score – so I didn’t see how anything could go wrong. And then my transfer was blocked.
According to my manager, his manager, and the director, my transfer was being blocked because I had undocumented performance problems. I pointed out that I had a perfect performance score, and that there had never been any complaints about my performance. I had completed all OKRs on schedule, never missed a deadline even in the insane organizational chaos, and that I had managers waiting for me to join their team. I asked what my performance problem was, and they didn’t give me an answer. At first they said I wasn’t being technical enough, so I pointed out that they were the ones who had given me my OKRs, and if they wanted to see different work from me then they should give me the kind of work they wanted to see – they then backed down and stopped saying that this was the problem. I kept pushing, until finally 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.” I couldn’t decipher that, so I gave up and decided to stay until my next performance review.
She describes a company permeated with infighting, incompetence, and organizational dysfunction. The environment she describes is most often set by the CEO who leads the organization and establishes priorities, attitudes, and behavior. Yet, startlingly, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick says this is the first he has heard of this:
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.
Assuming Susan Fowler can document her charges, and she notes that she has records of all her charges, this will become a monumental issue for Uber. Uber has experienced numerous embarrassing issues, including being fined by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office for misrepresenting the screening of its drivers, assaults on female passengers by Uber drivers, and testing self-driving vehicles without a license. But they’ve encountered nothing as ominous and threatening as this.