We have all seen the news coverage of the sexual harassment and discrimination problems at Uber. According to reports, Uber has long suffered from a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and discrimination toward female employees. The issues first came to light publicly in February, when one former Uber employee published a blog post about the sexual harassment that she and other women experienced at the company.
Based on the information available, it appears that the problem at Uber did not stem only from the harassers themselves. Rather, the problems stemmed from a misguided Human Resources department that allowed the problems to go unchecked, despite receiving multiple reports of sexual harassment and discrimination from female employees.
According to reports, when a female employee reported harassment or discrimination to Uber’s Human Resources department, she was more likely to be chastised by HR than to have her concerns addressed. According to allegations, HR representatives told employees who reported such issues that, because the conduct complained of was the harasser’s “first offense” and the harasser was a “high performer,” he would receive a warning, nothing more. HR allegedly told one woman (the author of the February blog post referred to above) that the fact that she had made multiple complaints indicated that it was she, not the male employees she was reporting, who was the problem.
If true, these allegations suggest that Uber’s HR department believed that its highest priority was to protect “high performers” at all costs, even if that meant allowing sexual harassment to run rampant within the company. Generally, when an HR department adopts such an outlook, it comes from the top. HR staff who believe that management expects them to protect harassers and sweep complaints under the rug will, quite often, do so. Like any other employee, an HR rep wants to keep his or her job.
That is why it is imperative that management sets the tone for a company’s culture. HR must receive clear directives that harassment and discrimination are not to be tolerated, and employees must be made to feel that any issues they report will be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately. These messages must be conveyed through both the words and actions of management. HR must understand its role to be a watchdog for compliance issues and an advocate for employees, not a puppet of management.
Uber has terminated at least 20 employees in the fallout from the sexual harassment and discrimination scandal, and its CEO has resigned. Clearly, the company will be feeling the impact of the scandal for quite some time. Any company that has not taken proactive steps to assure that its HR department understands its true purpose and role should view this story as a cautionary tale.