Will Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s departure solve its problems?

The company is in the middle of an HR crisis, and some are calling for its chief HR officer to be held accountable.

Last week (June 21), Uber founder Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO amid mounting pressure from the company’s major shareholders for him to step down.

The ride-hailing company’s board of directors had decided by that point that drastic action had to be taken to restore its image, which had taken a huge hit as a result of the string of HR scandals that plagued it the months before.

The most notable case involved that of Susan Fowler, a former software engineer whose revealing blog entry in February had exposed Uber’s lax HR practices around workplace sexual harassment.

Fowler had wrote that she had was sexually harassed by her team manager over the company’s internal messenger, which she reported to HR.

HR, however, according to Fowler, did not discipline the manager.  

“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 offence, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to,” she wrote.

Fowler ended up in a new team, and a newfound aversion to HR (“I desperately wanted to not have to interact with HR ever again”).

Around the same time, The New York Times also ran an article about Uber’s “unrestrained” and “aggressive” workplace culture where results mattered more than the means used to get there.

Still, Kalanick’s departure has left some scratching their heads.

While Kalanick himself came under fire in March – he was caught on camera fighting with an Uber driver over the company’s low fares – Uber’s biggest problems this year were also arguably in HR, not just PR.

While new blood at the top can inject fresh perspectives, how does this directly address Uber’s present reputation as a sexist and inappropriate workplace, which is in dire need of a massive clean-up?

As soon as news broke that Kalanick had quit, critics also started calling for the company’s chief HR officer Liane Hornsey to be replaced.

Back in May, Hornsey told USA Today that Fowler’s blog shocked her.

“But, what did surprise me, was when I did the listening sessions, this didn’t come up as an issue. It wasn’t one of our big themes. Other things came up that are in that area, that our values are masculine and a little aggressive, but the harassment issue, I just didn’t find that at all,” she added.

Hornsey’s statement, if anything, only further showed that HR still did not view harassment as a crucial company issue.

Still, Fowler’s story, along with the others that emerged after hers, took place months before Hornsey first stepped foot into Uber. Hornsey officially joined the company in January 2017.

Based on the timeline, would it then be fair to hold Hornsey accountable?

There is no simple answer to this question, because more employee stories are likely to come to light in the coming months, and we’ll have to wait and see how Hornsey and her team will respond, if they are not already doing so.

Hornsey, after all, boasts an impressive resume, having led Google’s people operations for nine years from 2006 to 2014. It would be wise to give her the benefit of doubt.

Furthermore, following the negative press from Fowler’s claims, Uber had also placed Ariana Huffington, the only female board member, on a special investigation team aimed at getting to the root of the issue. 

As the dust settles around Kalanick’s departure and Uber finds its footing again, only time will tell if a new leader will change the company’s toxic culture and practices.

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