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Uber Demonstrates How Not to Respond to Sexual Harassment Claims

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

For years, Uber has been held up as the model for tech startups: a case study in "disruption." But as much as other companies have tried to learn from its success, the ridesharing giant has also provided some valuable lessons in what not to do.

Case in point: Last week, a former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a withering blog post about her time at the company, extensively detailing numerous instances of sexual discrimination and harassment. While Uber might have been right in hiring former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to investigate Fowler's allegations, the company's initial responses to her claims were anything but.

Uncomfortable Punishment

Fowler's details of sexual harassment begin almost immediately upon her arrival at Uber:

"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."

The company's response to her report was exactly what you don't want to do. "I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me," Fowler said, but the company "wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to ... and they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part."

Fowler's account (worth reading in full) lists numerous other instances of harassment and discrimination against female employees, all reported to HR, and all ignored, refuted, or met with the same assurance of action that never materialized. You'd be hard pressed to find a worse response to legitimate claims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Reputational Repair

Once Fowler's allegations went public, Uber responded quickly. Days after the post's publication, Chief executive Travis Kalanick sent a memo to employees promising a review would be conducted in "short order," involving, along with Holder, new human resources chief Liane Hornsey and Uber board member Arianna Huffington.

Whether the impending investigation will lead to a culture change at the company, or at least be enough to repair Uber's tarnished image, remains to be seen. What is absolutely clear is that your small business can do a lot better than Uber when it comes to responding to sexual harassment claims.

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