Anatomy of a Crisis: Uber & Its Culture

Anatomy of a Crisis Uber & Its Culture.jpg

In the interests of learning and doing better when it happens to us, in this series of blogs we are enjoying being those wise people who always know what a company should have done when it was handling a crisis (after the event, of course!).

We have already examined Google and its immediate handling of the infamous 10-page diversity memo. We also analyzed HBO and the furious social media opposition to a show that did not even have a script.

This week it’s the turn of Uber and how its workplace culture revealed itself to be a big problem for the brand and the loyalty of its riders and drivers.

What happened?

The company was founded as UberCab in 2009 by Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick. Its first employee Ryan Graves became the CEO, with Kalanick succeeding him in December 2010.

In 2011 the company changed its name to Uber. The following year it added UberX to its app, which allowed private car owners to offer rides to consumers. By early 2013 it was operating in 35 cities.

The next three years featured explosive growth as consumers fell in love with the Uber service. To ‘uber’ entered the language as a verb.

However, lurking behind the public façade was a workplace culture that was seriously awry.

A few glimpses appeared in the media. There were accusations that Uber paid to have dirt dug up on reporters who wrote critical articles.  That was allegations of an internal tool called Greyball that allowed the company to avoid certain customers. And numerous reports of dirty tricks aimed at competitors such as Lyft.

But nothing seemed to affect the rising popularity of the Uber app.

Then what?

In 2017 the problems in the culture at Uber blew up and became very visible.

As a sampling of the issues:

  • It faced a lawsuit alleging its pricing defrauded drivers and customers.
  • Various media reports noted its ‘asshole culture’ and one Silicon Valley hiring manager was quoted as saying it was a black mark to have done well at Uber as it meant you embraced the company’s off kilter values.
  • CEO Kalanick was caught on video berating a Uber driver.
  • A former Uber engineer alleged she was sexually harassed by a manager and threated to be fired if she reported it.
  • Following the resultant investigation, 20 employees were fired, CEO Kalanick went on an indefinite leave of absence and in June resigned as CEO.

After all of this, there was evidence that consumers were turning away from Uber and increasingly adopting Lyft and other rival services.

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What did Uber do well?

Albeit belatedly, it recognized that corporate cultures are usually created top down. The values and behavior of leadership and especially the CEO are taken as the ‘norms’.

It’s tough to let go of a CEO who founded the company and was the architect of its astonishing growth and gains in value.

But there is a time when you must recognize that the reputation of the company, the trust held by its drivers and riders, is a more valuable long-term asset that the continued presence of a CEO who enabled such a toxic culture.

What could they have done better?

There’s a really good book waiting to be written in answer to this question!

We’ve all worked for companies with strong, supportive cultures that encourage diversity in all its many forms, that build environments where creativity is nurtured and talent is recognized and bolstered at all levels.

Those don’t happen by accident.

For us crisis managers, the lesson is that the crisis is not that lawsuit or the public accusations of a disgruntled employee. The crisis may be the culture and leadership that is creating the fertile ground for these kinds of incidents.

What do you think?