SAN FRANCISCO — Uber has fired 20 employees over harassment, discrimination and inappropriate behavior, as the ride-hailing company tries to contain the fallout from a series of toxic revelations about its workplace.
Uber disclosed the terminations on Tuesday at a staff meeting at its San Francisco headquarters, according to an employee who attended the event but was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. The firings, which occurred in the last few months, stem from an internal investigation into Uber’s workplace, the employee said. The company did not name the people who were fired, but some were senior executives, the employee said.
The firings were aimed at tackling what many at Uber say are deep-seated management and cultural issues, which have made the company a cautionary tale for what can go wrong with Silicon Valley’s often freewheeling corporate culture. Uber has been a lightning rod because of its aggressive chief executive, Travis Kalanick, who has flouted rules and regulations to turn the company into a nearly $70 billion behemoth. Uber’s difficulties have revived questions about how the tech industry treats women and employees in general — and whether start-ups can recover from such stumbles.
“You only terminate 20 people after you’ve determined after an investigation that there is something very, very wrong at the company,” said Deborah Weinstein, the president of the Weinstein Firm, which deals with employment and workplace law issues. “Most places don’t have this level of things going wrong.
Uber’s workplace troubles began in February when Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, said in a blog post that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor there and that the human resources department ignored the claims. Other employees have since reported systemic issues in the company, saying that a premium was placed on workers who delivered strong performance and aggressive growth, and that their behavioral transgressions were often overlooked.
Those disclosures plunged Uber into crisis, putting Mr. Kalanick and his lieutenants under scrutiny and raising concerns about how far is too far when it comes to the behavior of the company’s 12,000 full-time employees. (Uber’s drivers are contractors, not employees.)
Uber has since faced more problems. It is embroiled in a lawsuit with Waymo, the self-driving car business that operates under Google’s parent company, over autonomous vehicle technology, leading Uber to last week dismiss a top engineer, Anthony Levandowski, who was named in the suit. The Justice Department has also opened an inquiry into Uber’s use of a tool to evade authorities who were trying to shut down the ride-hailing service.
After Ms. Fowler’s claims, Uber hired Eric H. Holder Jr., former attorney general, and his law firm, Covington & Burling, to conduct an independent investigation of the claims and to assess the ride-hailing company’s culture. Mr. Holder’s report has been delivered to Uber’s board, and the company plans to make some of it public next week, as well as to discuss the findings with employees.
The terminations announced to employees on Tuesday, which were earlier reported by Bloomberg, are the result of a separate investigation by Perkins Coie, another law firm Uber hired. Lawyers from Perkins Coie consulted with Uber on the internal investigation, and the company acted on the firm’s recommendations.
Bobbie Wilson, a partner at Perkins Coie, said the firm was focused on “specific” allegations raised from a hotline that Uber set up so employees could send information in confidence. Mr. Holder’s investigation is more broad and focused on Uber’s overall culture.
Some companies strategically choose to divide an investigation between two investigators to protect lawyer-client privilege, said Liz Rita, an employment lawyer and owner of Investigations Law Group based in Denver.
In such a scenario, one investigator may handle elements involving more sensitive or higher litigation risk, and a second investigator may handle findings that may be disclosed more publicly. This is done to protect a company from inadvertently waiving lawyer-client privilege if they publicly reveal parts of an investigation without disclosing all the findings.
Ms. Wilson, the partner at Perkins Coie, said the firm was tapped almost immediately after Ms. Fowler’s blog post was made public. The lawyers combed through thousands of internal documents and emails, and interviewed current and former employees to corroborate claims by Ms. Fowler and others.
“We were given unfettered access,” Ms. Wilson said in an interview. “We did a thorough and painstaking investigation into all of Ms. Fowler’s allegations. We spoke to people — anybody frankly — who wanted to give us information on the company’s issues.”
Some tips came in through the internal hotline that Uber created. Other information came through Liane Hornsey, Uber’s chief human resources officer, as well as to Arianna Huffington, a member of the company’s board of directors.
In a CNN interview in March, Ms. Huffington said of what she had been hearing from Uber employees that “yes, there were some bad apples, unquestionably.”
“But this is not a systemic problem,” she added.
In total, Ms. Wilson said that more than 215 cases of workplace violations were investigated at Uber, of which roughly 100 resulted in no action being taken. Forty-seven of the cases were related to sexual harassment, and 54 involved some form of discrimination. Others fell under the categories of unprofessional behavior, including bullying, retaliation, physical security and other nonsexual forms of harassment.
Thirty-one employees are now undergoing some form of workplace training, and seven others have been given final warnings, Uber said. There are 57 complaints still under review.
“If there was something serious, we didn’t wait to tell Uber,” Ms. Wilson said. “The company wasn’t going to wait for some future point in time to take action.”
She declined to comment on who was fired and declined to be specific about the episodes for which people were let go.
Uber has been making a series of other personnel changes, separate from the firings, in the wake of the harassment claims. Since February, there have been a string of executive departures. Amit Singhal, a former Google executive named as Uber’s senior vice president for engineering, left abruptly after he failed to disclose sexual harassment charges against him from his tenure at Google. Ed Baker, a vice president, also left in March.
More recently, Uber has hired several new executives. On Monday, the company said it was bringing on Frances Frei, a Harvard Business School professor and management consultant, as its first senior vice president for leadership and strategy.
The company confirmed another hire on Tuesday, that of Bozoma St. John, a former Apple executive, who will come aboard in the newly created position of chief brand officer.
Uber is still searching for a chief operating officer to assist Mr. Kalanick, who said this year that he needed more leadership help, after being caught on video berating an Uber driver.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of an employment lawyer who is also the owner of Investigations Law Group in Denver. She is Liz Rita, not Rata.
Reposted from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/technology/uber-fired.html