Opinion

Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Silicon Valley learn that work isn’t a fraternity

Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick, shown here in 2012, will be stepping aside from the company’s helm indefinitely.
Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick, shown here in 2012, will be stepping aside from the company’s helm indefinitely. AP

Uber long has been the poster child for the downside of Silicon Valley. The dismal treatment of women. The corner-cutting business practices. The unbelievably childish and even dangerous bro culture.

But as CEO Travis Kalanick is learning the hard way, people – and corporations – must eventually grow up.

On Tuesday, Kalanick announced he would take a leave of absence, based in part on recommendations from former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., whose firm was hired by Uber to help rebuild its thrashed reputation.

CEOs of other Silicon Valley companies should see this as a cautionary tale: Not every rule is made to be disrupted.

“The ultimate responsibility, for where we’ve gotten and how we’ve gotten here rests on my shoulders,” Kalanick wrote in a companywide email. “There is of course much to be proud of but there is much to improve. For Uber 2.0 to succeed there is nothing more important than dedicating my time to building out the leadership team. But if we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve.”

Certainly Uber is not the first startup to outgrow a hard-charging founder. But the culture Kalanick fostered has been among the most blatantly obnoxious and fraught with misogyny.

Last week, Uber’s top executives summoned staff to the company’s San Francisco headquarters to announce they had fired 20 people for violating workplace policies. More than 215 of the company’s 12,000-plus employees were accused of unprofessional conduct that ranged from sexual harassment to discrimination to bullying to retaliation to physical threats.

An investigation by Perkins Coie LLP, one of two outside law firms Uber wisely hired to ferret out misconduct, cleared only about 100 employees of wrongdoing. About 30 others are now in some type of counseling or workplace training, another 60 are still being investigated and seven have received written warnings.

Separately, word spread last week that Uber also fired its top executive in Asia for hanging onto the medical records of a woman who was raped by her Uber driver in India – a fact that, disgustingly, was widely known among the company’s leaders, including Kalanick.

So brace yourselves for the horror stories that will certainly trickle out over social media in the coming weeks. #DeleteUber anyone?

We can only imagine the details of Holder’s report, which Uber executives laid out for employees on Tuesday. It reportedly bans sexual relationships between employees at different levels, requires senior managers to undergo leadership training, details a new process for handling employee complaints and requires Uber to implement new benefits, such as equal time for family leave.

Most of all, the report urges Uber to push Kalanick to the side by adding new members to the company’s board and appointing an independent chair, The Washington Post reported.

Indeed, these are the things that need to change. However painful the process, cleaning house is the only way to make up for years of letting male employees pick on women with impunity.

It’s also the only way to show that the company is making real progress to ensure some other Uber engineer doesn’t have to publish a blog just to get her managers to address her complaints about being sexually harassed at the office. And it draws a bright line on other issues at the company, such as its habit of playing fast and loose with the rules of business.

As it is, the company is scheduled to face a trial in October over whether Uber stole trade secrets from Google. The outcome of the case could determine which company is first to market with autonomous vehicles. Another report surfaced this week that Uber was using an algorithm for its new employees that reinforced an existing gender wage gap, causing even more turmoil inside the tech company.

CEOs of other Silicon Valley companies should see this as a cautionary tale: Not every rule is made to be disrupted.

This is what growing up looks like when a company tries to avoid it, and confuses workplaces with fraternities.

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