On Feb. 19, 2017, Susan Fowler, a former Uber employee, posted a blog about her experiences with harassment, discrimination, and retaliation at Uber. Her post highlighted a rather deaf human resource department and a disinterested management team. Here is a part of her post:
“Uber was a pretty good-sized company at that time, and I had pretty standard expectations of how they would handle situations like this. I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on – unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently. When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”
The blog posted kicked off yet another crisis Uber to go along with other, publicly documented accounts of bad behavior by leadership. Former Attorney General Eric Holder was appointed to investigate and to report back to Uber’s board. One June 5, 2017 the recommendations of the report were made public after the board has unanimously accepted all the recommendations. Many of the changes were practice common in many organizations related to human resource practices and management accountability. A central theme was a problem with Uber’s “hard charging” culture that seemed to be personified by its CEO Travis Kalanick. It was announced he would be on indefinite leave following the report. Uber had already fired/had many in leadership leave the organization as part of the need to change. Now Uber has a blueprint for additional change. Stakeholder interest (including traditional and social media) will continue to wane as Uber starts to implement the change but eventually there will be some check on these changes to see if the practices and culture are changing. Stakeholder should and often do question an organization’s commitment to addressing the problems that created the crisis.
The case illustrates that corrective action can be a slow road. Corrective action includes an organization explaining what it is doing to prevent a repeat of the crisis. This prevention is part of adjusting information because it is a critical element of helping people cope psychologically with a crisis. We can call this corrective action prevention. Do you want to re-purchase a food item that made you sick or work for a company that has had such a high-profile harassment case? The answer is “no” unless you believe the company has changed its ways and working to prevent a repeat of the crisis. Organizations often begin corrective action prevention with a promise. But how good is that promise? Did the organization conduct a thorough investigation? Was the investigation independent or internal? Did the organization take tangible action of the report recommendations? The corrective action prevention can be a long-term process that serves to extend the crisis though often at a low level of interest. However, the bigger the crisis, the greater the interest when the report is made. BP followed a similar pattern in response to the Texas City tragedy. The news media were very skeptical of BP’s initial identification of the problem. What followed was an external investigation and report by James Baker. Many stakeholders (including traditional media) will question an organization’s crisis response until the corrective action prevention is implemented, usually those closest to the crisis including victims. There are times when an effective crisis response takes time because an organization must seek to understand what and who are responsible for the crisis and then take actions designed to reduce the likelihood of the crisis repeating (prevention /mitigation).
Questions to Consider
1. Why would Uber be so reluctant to have its CEO step away before the report? How is this complicated by Kalanick having controlling interest in Uber?
2. Why might the earlier removal of personnel been considered just a sign of good faith and not a complete corrective action prevention?
3. At this point, who do you think is still interested in the crisis?
4. How does the case indicate an organization cannot always gloss over concerns about responsibility for a crisis?