Culture is Contagious and Can Kill (or Save) Your Organization

The news of the past few weeks and months related to Uber should be a wake-up call to employers across the nation.   In February, 2017, a former Uber employer posted a blog detailing her experiences of sexual harassment, gender bias and inequity, retaliation, and poor HR management at the company.  Her blog prompted the Uber Board of Directors to retain a law firm to investigate the individual harassment claims (initially 215 claims, whittled down to 115), and a second firm investigated the workplace practices and culture issues raised in the blog (with the investigation led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder).

The former investigation into the 115 harassment claims resulted in Uber firing 20 employees for misconduct, with the outcome of the other 95 claims currently unknown.  The latter investigation resulted in a report to the Uber Board of Directors which detailed recommendations to improve workplace culture, revamp existing policies and practices, and refocus on their presumed commitment to diversity and inclusion.  What is remarkable is how many of the recommendations reflect basic management best practices and how much emphasis was placed on empowering HR to function in its proper role.  As Holder’s report recommended, “It is critical to the goal of establishing trust that Human Resources be seen as vested with true authority to act on all issues affecting employees”.  The basic nature of many of these recommendations provides an insight into how destructive the policies and practices had become – and the extent to which their hard-driving, push-the-boundaries culture had eroded.

The law firm’s recommendations to the Uber Board included the following:

  • Review and reallocate the responsibilities of CEO Travis Kalanick and add a new Chief Operating Officer position. (Since then, Kalanick announced he is resigning, but will remain on the Board.)
  • Increase the profile of Uber Head of Diversity and retitle the role as a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer”, reporting directly to the CEO or new COO. Create an “Employee Diversity Advisory Board” to ensure attention and consistency to diversity and inclusion efforts.  Clearly, the goal with these recommendations is to not only stress the value and presence of a more diverse workforce in terms of protected classes, but also to meaningfully include a broader diversity of employees in workplace operations.
  • Increase the independence of the Board and establish some form of Ethics and Culture Committee. The recent resignation of a male Board member who made a sexist comment after receiving Holder’s report indicates the Board is taking this facet of its role more seriously.
  • Publish Uber’s diversity statistics on a regular basis, no doubt to hold Uber to its plan.
  • Focus on improving the diversity of applicants, including adopting into Uber’s recruiting structure a form of the “Rooney Rule”, meaning each final candidate pool and each interview panel must include a woman and a member of an under-represented minority group.
  • Improve HR record-keeping to ensure Uber can “keep better track of complaints, personnel records and employee data” to ensure proper action is taken, ascertain trends and repeat offenders, and stress the general importance of record-keeping. This is HR 101. 
  • Increased support for HR within the organization, rethinking HR as a means of retaining good staff and with “true authority to act on all issues affecting employees”. This also included a recommendation that Uber adopt a zero-tolerance policy for substantiated claims of discrimination and harassment, without special exemption for employees who are considered “high performers”.
  • Training for HR staff on handling claims of harassment, discrimination or retaliation.
  • Mandatory training for all managers on “how to communicate with and value all employees, maintain a proper managerial relationship, provide constructive feedback to employees, help employees set personal career goals, appropriately evaluate employee performance according to the company’s values, consistently apply the company’s transfer and promotion policies, and handle performance-related issues and complaints of unfair treatment”.
  • Review benefits offerings and policies to help attract and retain a more diverse applicant and employee population.
  • Review workplace policies and practices to reinforce a workplace free of harassment and discrimination. Recommended revisions include emphasizing that that discrimination and harassment are prohibited, that romantic relationships should not exist between employees in a reporting relationship, implement a robust complaint process, and properly staff and resource the HR department.

In recent years, the trend has been to focus on a more casual and social workplace culture.  While that may help attract and retain certain workers, the risk is if employers allow that to go too far, as in the case with Uber.  Culture can quickly decay, and the resulting legal issues and bad press abound.  Funding sources dry up.  Clients don’t return calls.  Applicants become scarce.  How can you avoid that nightmare while maintaining a collegial, positive culture?

Management and Human Resources must take seriously their responsibility to all employees and by implementing the following Uber-like recommendations:

  • Update your workplace policies and practices to ensure a workplace not only free of harassment and discrimination, but also one which fosters success and fulfillment for all employees.
  • Review your benefits to ensure they incent and support a diverse, successful and happy workforce.
  • Train your managers and leaders to educate them on their enhanced managerial duties and responsibilities.
  • Provide annual Anti-Harassment Training to all staff, with extra, tailored training for managers.
  • Take complaints seriously and retain experienced investigators, whether employment law attorneys or HR professionals, to examine closely the allegations and facts, and make factual determinations and substantive recommendations.
  • Examine and, if needed, restructure your recruiting practices to have more diverse applicant pools and interview panels.

The experienced employment law attorneys and HR professionals at Clark & Gotzler can assist and advise your organization with policy and practices updates, with management skills training, anti-harassment training, tailored benefits strategies, and investigation services – all with the goal of having the most fulfilling, rewarding and productive workplace for all of your employees.