Uber Chaos, and How to Fix It

uber-main-2016.jpg

Background

The tech world is awash this week in phrases like “sexual harassment,” “toxic values,” and “#DeleterUber” after a blistering blog post from Susan J. Fowler went viral on Sunday night. The post describes the sexual harassment that Fowler experienced during her year working at the transportation company. And it has exploded everywhere, from BuzzFeed and TechCrunch to Recode, Vox, and Huffington Post.   

Yet in all the noise that’s come down about the piece, there hasn’t been a real discussion of what appears to be the root cause of the problem: why Uber’s professional environment was allowed to reach this level of discrimination. Only by understanding that can Uber and other companies begin to reform their corporate policies and cultures.

We can already see the outlines of the usual responses of a corporation under fire for sexism and harassment: statements of outrage at the highest levels (Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Uber board member Arianna Huffington), assurances that these types of things do not represent the corporation’s ideals and will not be tolerated, promises of an investigation, the offending sexual harasser has already been shepherded out of the organization, and the HR managers who responded in such a woeful manner to Fowler’s complaint of sexual harassment undoubtedly will be next. And as necessary as these things are to hear and read, none of them will change anything in the long run because they fail to deal with the root causes.

Where the Problems Come From

As with any environment where sexism and discrimination exist, it all goes back to the corporate culture. And so to solve systemic issues, one must deal with the corporate culture. While the most incendiary aspects of Fowler’s post deal with sexual harassment and her experiences trying to report it, the harassment—which I will discuss in a moment—is but the symptom of a larger corporate issue of sexism.

In Uber’s case, the main problem can be distilled down to three main things:

  1. An environment where egalitarianism and respect were not prioritized.
  2. A weak and ineffective HR department with no real power.
  3. The evaluation of women through a prism of prejudice.

It thus becomes necessary to examine the typical corporate mentality, and how this mentality contributed to the current situation at Uber.  

Ineffective and Reactive Corporate Mentality

As with most corporations, it is clear from Fowler’s post that Uber prioritized “high performance” and bottom line-data points over an egalitarian work environment. Time and again, Fowler describes reporting issues to mid-level and upper management, and receiving the typical—but completely inadequate response—of “well he’s a high performer,” or some such phrase.

Employees in any corporation will do what they believe they need to do to keep their jobs and to get promoted, and visa versa, will refrain from doing things that they believe will jeopardize their job security or advancement. If employees believe that sexual harassment will not be met with remedial action, they will feel empowered to engage in it. By contrast, if they feel that sexual harassment could get them fired, they may think twice before engaging in it. This is not complicated.

Elaborately stated corporate policies against sexual harassment, typically contained in an employee handbook, are a good first start but won’t by themselves end sexual harassment. Despite the best intentions at the highest levels of the corporation, it is clear that the message at Uber was not effectively communicated to the broad base of employees, including mid-level managers. Why this is so springs in large part from Uber’s corporate structure which is actually typical of most every corporation in America. Fowler’s post provides a public service because it reveals that the problem was also caused in part by Uber’s corporate organization.   

HR with No Real Power

Fowler goes on to write in her post that she was told by upper management that they would not feel comfortable punishing the sexual harasser. This reveals three new things:

  1. The corporate priorities are to protect their fiscal bottom line.
  2. HR is not seen as contributing to the fiscal bottom line.
  3. As a result, upper management essentially makes all of HR’s decisions, and HR is essentially powerless. Given this, is it any wonder that HR told Fowler that they were not prepared to do anything?

Since the HR department recognized its inability to deal with the situation, it effectively told Fowler two important things:

  1. HR knew it was harassment, but that they were not prepared to do anything about it.
  2. Uber’s concern for the sexual harasser’s “high performance” was more important than Fowler’s right to work in a workplace free of sexual harassment.

In fact, HR’s response that it “wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part” highlights an intent on HR’s part to excuse sexual harassment and to marginalize victims of sexual harassment.

Here’s the main issue: most HR managers have to persuade the line managers to agree with their recommendations regarding appropriate remedial action. This inherently plays out in a conflict of interest for the managers who have no incentive to remedy sexual harassment if it will result in losing an executive who has generated revenue for the company.

Because so much of corporate upward mobility is tied to revenue generation, those who generate the most revenue and do so most efficiently are most likely to reap the rewards of that work (i.e. promotions, bonuses, etc.). As such, these managers have no corporate incentive to make waves, and every incentive to keep things quiet, and make sure they go away.

Thus, HR managers’ hands are tied in most cases since they typically do not have the power to override the mid-level managers. Even when outside consultants are brought in to “assess” the situation and recommend solutions, those solutions are only as effective as HR’s power to enforce them. Stripping HR of this power and incentive almost ensures that none of those potential solutions will be effective.  

The real solution is to give the power to HR to decide upon the appropriate corporate response without the involvement of upper management, and even against the wishes of upper management, which institutionally will be loathe to part with a “highly performing” employee who is ostensibly contributing to that profit sector’s bottom line.

As Uber can now attest, a properly functioning HR department contributes substantially to the bottom line by avoiding the mess it is now in. It is time to view the HR departments as equal contributors to any corporation’s bottom line, and to give them the corresponding power to deal with issues such as sexual harassment which if not treated properly will substantially take away from a corporation’s bottom line.

A Vicious Cycle

It is clear from Ms. Fowler’s article that the sexual harassment did not exist in a vacuum. It was facilitated by sex discrimination throughout the corporation. I’m no statistician, but a diminution of women in the corporation from 25% to 6% would not seem to be explained by a suggestion that all those women left for better jobs or were inadequate performers. Especially in a universe where managers feel empowered to tell women that the corporation will buy leather jackets for the male employees but not for the female employees, it seems more likely than not that at least part of the reason for the reduction in female employees was caused by sexist attitudes in the corporation.

If those sexist attitudes are not eradicated, they will provide a warm Petri dish in which will grow the next cases of sexual harassment. Harassment, like any other resulting symptom, results from something, and in this case that something is a corporate environment that has been stunted in its ability to prevent such problems before they arise.

While attitudes and seminars are discussed regarding how to handle sexual harassment and/or discrimination issues when they arise, the real solution is to ensure an environment where that doesn’t happen, not because people are discouraged from reporting issues, but because people are discouraged from engaging in any inappropriate behavior in the first place.   

At the same time, it should be made clear by action at the highest levels that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Diversity training should not only be mandatory, but it should be attended by the CEO, who by his or her simple presence will give it the importance it needs to be effective, or by his or her absence would give the unintended signal that profits are more important than dealing with the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination.

It is more difficult to deal with ingrained sexist attitudes than with the more obvious cases of sexual harassment. If management has a predisposition to view female engineers as somehow less talented, women will be judged through a prism of sexist attitudes, resulting in women receiving lower performance evaluations. Then the failure of women to advance in the corporation, or their dismissal, will be ostensibly explained by the lower performance evaluations. It is a vicious cycle: women are initially perceived as less talented than men, resulting in lower performance evaluations, which ostensibly “prove” that they were less talented after all.

Meltdown and How to Fix It

The response to Fowler’s blog post, in words at least, has been biblical. Coverage from all the major tech media sources, as well as incendiary tweets from a variety of high-powered individuals in the tech community. If Fowler hadn’t already been working at Stripe, she likely would have found her email inbox flooded with job offers this morning (my guess is that happened anyway).

Uber has the opportunity and ability here to actually effect immediate change and help its image—if it’s so inclined.

Kalanick responded to Fowler’s blog post with a staunch statement that the actions described therein are unacceptable and will be met with swift termination. Uber board member Arianna Huffington similarly voiced sentiment about how the Uber board intends to conduct an independent investigation and get to the bottom of the issues which led Fowler and other women to leave the company.

I’m glad to hear that Kalanick and Huffington appear to be taking this matter seriously. But doing an independent investigation—even if it turns up some managers behaving inappropriately—will do nothing in the long term unless Uber’s upper management is committed to adjusting its corporate philosophy and structure, and making sure that this change is felt throughout its ranks. Being outraged by Fowler’s experiences at Uber is a good first step. The next step is to deal with the root causes of her experiences.

If Kalanick and Huffington really want to effect change, there are three things they must do:

  1. They need to structure, or restructure, their HR department so that the Head of HR reports directly to Kalanick himself as CEO, and has the ability to override mid-level and upper-level management regarding appropriate remedial action.
  2. Kalanick and Huffington need to restructure the corporate mentality so that HR is not viewed as a drag on the company’s bottom line, but instead is seen as saving the company money by resolving these issues before they make their way into the public eye.  
  3. Kalanick and the Uber board need to make it crystal clear that diversity and harassment seminars are mandatory, not simply suggested, and they should attend those seminars personally.

How Other Companies Can Be Proactive

Corporations at the highest level—and that means CEO’s—need to make it clear that sex discrimination and by extension sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They need to do this by not only saying so, but by acting so. They should give real power to HR departments to deal with sex discrimination and sexual harassment without the participation or approval of line management.

Managers whose subordinate employees are found to have engaged in sex discrimination or sexual harassment should see the trajectory of their careers affected just as if the profit sectors they manage had lost money. If sexism and sexual harassment costs employees their jobs, it won’t happen. It’s just that simple.

Other companies would do well to examine their own corporate structures. While the hashtag #DeleteUber looks great in a tweet, it doesn’t actually change anything. Real change will only come when those who are supposed to deal with discrimination and sexual harassment have the power to do so, and when it is made clear at the highest levels that discrimination and sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

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Thanks to Dad, Kiki Schirr, Elissa Shevinsky, and Arlan Hamilton for reading parts and drafts of this.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

This Sexism Shit Is Really Getting Old

I went with my mom today to pick up our car; one of the seats needed some material repair, so naturally we brought it to a place that specializes in car upholstery. As we’re paying the upholsterer, my mom and I get to talking with him about music. As there were no other customers at the moment (it was a small shop, and he was the sole proprietor), we shot the breeze for a minute and it was cool. Then he said something that pissed me off.

He made mention of the fact that we was a Rolling Stones fan, to which my mom noted that she’d never been much of a Stones fan (as it happens, I’m not a huge fan of them either). Not in an accusatory way; just a matter-of-fact way noting that she didn’t know too much about them because of that. This was what followed:

Upholsterer: Yeah, lemme guess, you probably like all those women musicians.

Mom: Excuse me?

Upholsterer: Yeah, like Carole King and all that shit.

Mom: Umm, fuck no. I used to be a drummer in high school. I saw KISS and Def Leppard last summer.

Upholsterer: [silence]

Now to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with liking Carole King, nor was my mom combative in her tone. She’s good that way; she knows how to play things off without upsetting anyone, but also without getting walked all over. But that interchange really ticked me off.

The sheer presumptuous nature of the guy’s comments, combined with the clear sexism (it really wasn’t hard to see where he was going), pretty much dampened the mood for me. I was ready to leave after that. Though I’ve unfortunately encountered sexism in my professional space, seeing it unfold in front of my eyes still always shocks me.

I give my mom a lot of credit for not burning any bridges; she was way calmer than I would have been. It peeves me immensely though to see someone like her—Ivy League-educated, in this day and age, successful and personable—exposed to backwards thinking like that. I’m sure anyone who’s ever experienced some degree of sexism will agree.

In the end, all I can say is that I’m super impressed with how she carried herself through what appeared to me to be a potentially embarrassing and combative situation. That’s really the thought process I came away with. That, and that we really need to do better with educating backwards-thinking people, because this sexism shit is really getting old.

 

Four Music Industry Posts Refocused

This week I threw a lot of notions and facts about the music industry out there, so I thought I would take a moment today to help refocus on them. Rather than write another post and add to the pile of important things to understand, I thought it better to simply restructure this past week’s posts in an easier, more digestible way of reading them. Here’s a short list for a few posts that went up this week, with a short description of each.

1. Two Stories of Sexism in the Music Industry – Two stories of my own experience that illustrate the sexism and gender inequality in the music industry that needs to be rooted out and eliminated. As with the tech industry, the music business has refocused and taken aim at gender discrimination, but these two short examples prove how things need to be better.

The sexism problem that needs to be solved

The sexism problem that needs to be solved

2. The Lie of “Live Won’t Save Music” – The wonderful adage of “Live won’t save music”—and why it’s a flat-out lie. The dynamics of the “live” factor in the music business (including the economic realities), and why “Live won’t save music” only applies to those artists and music professionals still grasping at the old, obsolete business model. An examination on how people need to restructure their thoughts on the music business if they want to be able to create a new, more lucrative business model.

3. Why Isn’t the Music Business Fully Crowdfunded? – Inspired by some things which I heard VC Fred Wilson postulate during the LAUNCH festival earlier this month. Discussions of the freedom that crowdfunding has allowed artists, and why it’s contributing to a trend towards staying independent. More than that, though, an examination of how artists can leverage the dynamic of crowdfunding for a better return in their own pockets.

4. Tell Me Again How There’s No Monopoly in the Music Industry – A simple chart that shows the incredibly monopolistic spiderweb of the major record labels and their subjects. With SONY in blue, Universal Music Group in green, and Warner Music Group in red, it’s not hard to see how three CEO’s (of these respective companies) essentially control all the music in the mainstream. If that’s not a monopoly, I really don’t know what is.

(Click for larger preview) 

The Big Three Major Labels and Their Subjects

The Big Three Major Labels and Their Subjects

New articles coming next week. There’s a lot more in the music industry to uncover, and definitely a lot more than needs to be changed.

Two Stories of Sexism in the Music Industry

The kind of BS sexism we need to eliminate

The kind of BS sexism we need to eliminate

The Scourge of Sexism

With the issue of gender equality fast becoming one of the central topics in Silicon Valley (and by extension, the tech and startups industries) at the moment, I can’t say I’m anything but pleased. The problem of gender discrimination and the glass ceiling is long overdue for a solution. While I harbor no fantasies that such a solution will be found overnight, I am nonetheless pleased to see that there is a major effort being made to reform these shortcomings in the tech industry.

As a male, I can confidently say that gender discrimination hits very close to home for me; my parents both practice civil rights litigation, with a focus in employment discrimination and sexual harassment. I grew up seeing cases of blatant discrimination (and unfortunately it makes me angry to say I still do), where the the ugly beasts of intolerance and sexism were clearly visible. The latter, in particular, surprises me again and again because we are taught to believe that we’re moving forward in eradicating sexism—but not fast enough in my opinion. We still have a lot of work to do.

While the tech industry is starting to really spotlight and root out sexism within its ranks (as well it should), other industries are lagging too far behind in my opinion. The music industry, for example, is still too hampered by outright sexism for my taste, even after movements like third-wave feminism and Riot grrrl punk began to shatter the mold. It’s not a foregone conclusion by any means, and there are many within the music trenches who are trying very hard to change it for the better—to level the playing field so that gender becomes irrelevant—so that talent is acknowledged and validated by its inherent existence, regardless of the artist’s gender.

But let me provide two examples of what can be changed, and how people can step in to make the music arena more tolerant and progressive. Neither example makes me happy to share (less happy to have experienced), but perhaps that underscores their importance.

The Sleazy Promoter

The first example happened a couple of years ago, in the spring of 2013, and goes like this: I am good friends with a band whose members included a female element (the singer and drummer). The group was set to work with a promoter to book shows in their home state (which, though eliminated by name, I can say is quite a big market for independent music). The promoter made inappropriate and unwelcome advances towards the female band member(s) and the group cut ties, not wanting to work professionally with someone of such poor character quality. The promoter then retaliated by threatening to call every promoter within the state, seeking to destroy the group’s reputation, thus effectively cutting out their feet from under them. (In this particular state, I can say with confidence that there are at least seven major cities and/or scenes that they most likely split their time between).

I was in Amsterdam at the time, on my study abroad program. I woke up one day to a frantic “what do we do?? we’re going to get totally screwed by this person!” email from the singer. Even through text it wasn’t hard to clearly read her fear and anger over the situation. So her solution? Reach out to me in search of some advice.

The response I sent her was simple: I explained to her that I was behind her, and would throw the entire weight of my blog and radio show behind her and the band (and would bring in other artists I knew for support if need be). I even offered to write a letter as a professional contact (DJ and journalist) attesting to their quality as a band and professionalism as people, which they might use to send to anyone to rebuke the slanderous threats of this sleazy promoter. She seemed calmed by that offer (and most thankful, as you can imagine!) and we decided to see just how events would proceed.

In the end, the promoter never made good on his threats, and the whole situation seemed to blow over. But I never forgot that frantic email (I’m sure she hasn’t either), and to this day I’m still good friends with her and the band. The point is this: such a situation should never have occurred, and it very quickly seemed to spin out of control. But in situations like these, one needs to have the wherewithal to step up for what’s right. I didn’t do anything I didn’t think others wouldn’t do in the same situation. You don’t do it for pats on the back—you do it because it’s right.

The Sexist Tweeter

The second example happened more recently, during the Super Bowl this year. One of the Super Bowl commercials was to promote the hashtag #LikeAGirl to promote gender equality. This is one commercial I loved and supported, and I made so known on Twitter. This was the result:

The sexism problem that needs to be solved

The sexism problem that needs to be solved

I was actually staggered by the sheer sexism of the comment that I saw on my post. Someone telling me that I was sure to “get laid” for supporting “those feminists.” I was angry—actually I was seething. Not only had this person insulted the women that my comment was meant to support, but had dragged my name down too by insinuating that my motive was “to get laid.” I work with numerous artists—many of them with a female element—and I was pissed that this person had seen fit to insult not only people I work with, but people who are my friends.

The music industry is like the tech/startup industry in this respect—not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but trying very hard to get better. And here was someone dragging us back to the dark ages. This is exactly the sort of thing that people in both industries (or any industry) need to find and root out. The people who make these comments and hold these views are toxic. It’s not (and won’t be) easy, but it has to be done. And it will be.

I for one will be on the lookout for it in the music industry, and will call anyone on it. I encourage other to take aim at sexism and gender discrimination in their respective industries which they know best. Music is my world, and I will not have it polluted with this sort of poison. Don’t step into my house and disrespect my business contacts and friends, it’s as simple as that.