Last weekend Uber found itself embroiled in yet another controversy and possibly its most damning one to date.
Former engineer Susan Fowler laid out her experiences at Uber in a blog post, from sexual harassment (that went unpunished) to stifled role transfers. The sexual harassment accusations also appeared to be against a repeat offender but the company refused to acknowledge these transgressions and brushed off the claims as one-off mishaps.
She claimed that her complaints, and those of many other female employees, were deliberately ignored by HR and management. In one instance, she was accused of being the problem by making multiple complaints. Fowler worked at Uber for a year before moving to payments firm Stripe.
“[W]hen I think about the things I’ve recounted in the paragraphs above, I feel a lot of sadness, but I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was,” she wrote. “Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.”
Uber is very familiar with controversy and accusations over how it does business but come Sunday night, CEO Travis Kalanick had responded in uncharacteristically fast fashion. He announced an “urgent investigation” into the matter.
“What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired,” the CEO tweeted.
Photo by Mike Windle / Getty Images.
By Tuesday, Uber had brought in former US attorney general under Obama, Eric Holder, and his law firm colleague Tammy Albarran to conduct the investigation. Arianna Huffington is also involved in the review.
Fowler’s account of her time at the company accords with several other complaints and accusations that have been made against Uber over the years, namely the representation of women in the company. Uber, unlike other tech firms like Google and Facebook, does not publish any diversity figures about its staff. Kalanick claimed that 15 percent of engineering and product roles are female and that the company would soon publish more stats.
According to Fowler, who worked on the site reliability engineering team for Uber, “only 3% were women” out of 150 or so engineers in that division. In her account, a higher-up allegedly said “the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers” in response to diversity concerns.
This case is one of the most egregious against Uber to date, whether or not this week’s swift response will mean anything remains to be seen. It still has a poor track record with handling controversies.
Last month during the chaos of President Trump’s travel ban, it got wrapped up in its own scandal at airports. During a taxi strike, Uber drivers were dispatched to JFK airport to take advantage of the opening, leading to the #DeleteUber campaign. The ignominy of the last few days has only added fuel to the sentiment of that campaign.
The company has had several sexual assault accusations leveled against it, pertaining to drivers. There have been a number of high profile cases in North America and India in particular. In late 2015, an Uber driver in Delhi, India was sentenced to life in prison for the rape of passenger in 2014 and just this week an Uber driver in Toronto was charged with sexual assault. These sorts of cases, which have been unnervingly common, continue to raise questions over Uber’s vetting process city to city and how it responds to such cases.
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Then there are of course the privacy challenges. Notoriously, there was “God View”, a system accessible for some Uber employees that allowed them to track and monitor the journeys of all customers. It first emerged at the end of 2014 but just last December it returned to the headlines via a court case that claimed it was used to track celebrities.
Let’s not forget the other major thorn in Uber’s side that has remained unrelenting: the traditional taxi sector. From London to Taiwan, Uber has faced a regulatory backlash over its drivers on the road competing with taxis. Just this week, Rome cabbies took to the streets for the sixth straight day to protest against the app.
Around the US and Europe it’s faced opposition from taxi drivers as well as its own drivers that want to be recognized as employees and receive fair wages. Most famously, a court in the UK ruled in October that Uber drivers are not self-employed and should be paid a living wage while it continues to fight EU regulators seeking to redefine the company and how it should be regulated. Also in the UK, the firm is being taken court over a tax dispute.
How Uber reacts to these various controversies will have a bearing on its business and the wider sharing economy but maybe it’s time it took a harder look at itself beyond the implications to its bottom line.