Uber fires 20 over ugly scandal. Will Silicon Valley's rockstar CEOs heed the warning signs?

Tech giants need to treat their workforces with respect

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Wednesday 07 June 2017 10:11
Whole world in his hands? Uber chief Travis Kalanick has to step up the company’s game for it to stay ahead of the pack
Whole world in his hands? Uber chief Travis Kalanick has to step up the company’s game for it to stay ahead of the pack

Silicon Valley executives are the rock stars of the business world. Bright, young and filthy rich, they’re often found in the same places as celebrities these days. Who’s next up for a guest spot on The Big Bang Theory?

The trouble is they’ve taken to behaving like celebrities – spoiled ones. And you can’t do that in corporate life because it’s not just about you. Executives set the culture for the organisations they run, and if they behave badly, it almost guarantees that there will be people in the business who will take their cue from that, and do worse.

Which brings us to Uber, an aggressive, hard-charging company that has revolutionised the taxi industry, but has for a long time looked as if it needs to do some growing up. It has encouraged a risk-taking culture. But some of its people have been taking the wrong kind of risks with their co-workers.

To be fair, Uber finally seems to have worked that out. Firing 20 people, some quite senior, in the wake of an ugly scandal over sexual harassment, bullying and a corporate culture that Nero might have found almost homely.

Still more have been put into training (possibly ramming home, “this is a human being, who works for you, you do not own them”?), while others have had final warnings issued. It follows the drafting of law firm Perkins Coie to review more than 200 claims. The results of some of those are still pending.

Eric Holder – he served as attorney general under Barack Obama – has also been appointed to take a wider look at the company’s corporate culture. You’d hope he’d have a word in the shell like of chief executive Travis Kalanick while he's at it. Something along the lines of this might do the trick: if you’re snotty with your drivers the chances are you’re going to get filmed, so for goodness sake be nice to them. It wouldn't hurt you to tip them heavily. They might even put it up on Twitter!

As part of a shake-up, Uber has even hired two women to senior roles, Frances Frei, a Harvard business school professor, will oversee “leadership” and strategy, working alongside HR head Liane Hornsey, who started in January. Bozoma Saint John, a marketing whizz from Apple, is expected to work on humanising the company’s grotty public image. Tough gig.

“We take this seriously,” is the obvious message Uber is trying to put out at a time when issues with employees are far from the only problem it’s having to deal with.

Rivals have been tailgating, and while the scandals dogging the company haven’t stopped it from generating huge revenues, they’ve used them to get closer to its bumper. Legal problems over the way “self-employed” drivers are treated have cropped up around the world, including in the UK. There’s also the small matter of a trade secrets legal battle with Google’s owner Alphabet over the tech used for self-driving cars.

The revenues are still flowing but the business impact of all this should not be underestimated, and while Ms Saint John’s skills will come in handy, the company needs to show it’s willing to institute meaningful changes and to make them stick long after the mess has been cleared up.

In the meantime, the rest of Silicon Valley, a place not exactly famed for the diversity of its workforce, should take note. Uber is hardly alone in occasionally forgetting that its employees are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect.

Its troubles might just have afforded some of its peers the opportunity to quietly take a careful look at their own policies and practices. Before they become Uber 2.0.

The rockstars of the Valley need to play a new tune. But do they have songwriting talent to write the music?

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