Did Uber Throw Itself Under the Bus?


This article by Frank Cania, president of driven HR – A USA Payroll Company, was originally published in The Daily Record, March 10, 2017.

You may not know this, but I sacrificed a less-than-mediocre career in accounting to become a human resource professional. My mother loved the sound of it: “HUMAN – RESOURCE – PROFESSIONAL.” Three words. Far more impressive to her than those one-word careers some of her friends’ children had chosen: pilot, pharmacist, engineer, doctor, and attorney. I can still hear the pride in her voice when she introduced me, “This is my son, Frank. He’s a human resource professional!” It’s probably good that she’s not here to read this article. 

Prompted by something ripped from the headlines, I googled two words, “hate HR.” The results were astounding and somewhat depressing. Of course I expected to see the infamous 2005 Fast Company Magazine article, “Why We Hate HR.” But, surely the profession had changed for the better over the course of a dozen years, right? Apparently not. In mere nano-seconds I was presented with:

  • Why Does Everyone Hate HR?
  • Do Your Employees Hate HR?
  • Why Don’t People Like HR Departments?
  • Why do so many people hate Human Resource departments?” and,
  • 10 Years Later: Does Everyone Still Hate HR?

The answers are sure to be found in:

  • (5 Surprising) Reasons Why Employees Hate HR
  • Ten Reasons Everybody Hates HR
  • Why We Love to Hate HR…and What HR Can Do About It
  • This is Why People Hate HR” and,
  • Everyone Hates HR

Disheartened by the fact that these articles were published recently, my search ended after page two.
What prompted my “hate HR” search was a viral blog post titled, “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber.” In her post, Susan Fowler (“Fowler”) describes a series of incidents that allegedly occurred while she was employed as a site reliability engineer (“SRE”) at Uber from November 2015 until she quit in December 2016. Reduced to their most basic elements, the allegations include discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, bullying, and a host of other disturbing workplace behaviors. And smack in the middle of it all is – you guessed it – HR.

In “Reasons Why Employees Hate HR,” Susan M. Heathfield, recognized HR expert, examines five of the most common explanations she hears for the contempt heaped on HR. I took those five points and tried to match them with the allegations made by Fowler.

1. HR employees are incompetent – On Fowler’s first day with her new SRE team at Uber, her manager sent her several messages using the company chat. The manager explained that “he was in an open relationship” and he was having a more difficult time finding new partners than his girlfriend. Also, he “was trying to stay out of trouble at work…but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with.”

Screenshots in hand, Fowler went to HR. There she was told, although “this was clearly sexual harassment…it was this man’s first offense, and they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.” Then, incredibly, Fowler was given the choice of either finding another team and never dealing with the manager again, or remaining on the team and accepting that she would likely be given a poor performance. Further, if that did occur, it would not be retaliation because she had been “given an option!

2. HR employees are dishonest – Over the ensuing months, Fowler met several other women engineers with strikingly similar stories about being sexually harassed by this manager before and after her experience with him, reporting it to HR, and being told it was his “first offense.” Even in subsequent meetings, HR maintained that the manager had only committed the one offense and that “none of the other women who they met with had anything bad to say about him.”

3. HR has only the company and management’s interests in mind – A few months later, after “a great review with no complaints whatsoever” about her performance, Fowler attempted to transfer. She was told her “performance review and score had been changed after the official reviews had been calibrated,” so she “was no longer eligible for transfer.”

4. HR is not objective and fair – Fowler attempted to keep HR apprised as the sexist communications continued, by sending emails to HR. Shortly after reporting an especially absurd situation involving management purchasing leather jackets for the men in the engineering group, but not the women, HR requested a meeting. Beginning the meeting by asking if Fowler realized that she was the common thread in all the reports, the HR representative then intimated that Fowler might be the problem.

5. HR is too involved in office politics – Continuing in an accusatory manner, the HR representative asked Fowler “if women engineers at Uber were friends and talked a lot…how often we communicated, what we talked about, what email addresses we used to communicate, which chat rooms we frequented, etc.” Then, in response to a comment Fowler made about how few women remained in SRE at Uber, the HR representative explained that “certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others.” Finally, according to Fowler, “the meeting ended with her berating me about keeping email records of things, and told me it was unprofessional to report things via email to HR.”

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has taken two important steps. First, he apologized. Then, he engaged former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, and Uber board member Arianna Huffington to investigate Fowler’s allegations.

With the allegations only days old, there are a number of unknowns. However, one thing is certain, if even a small part of Fowler’s disturbing account is true, Uber’s HR clearly failed not only the company and its employees, but also the HR profession…and my mother.

Posted by Frank Cania, president of driven HR – A USA Payroll Company

Please feel free to contact Frank at frank@drivenhr.com, or 855-672-4142 with questions or for more information.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute a legal opinion, and is not legal advice. The facts of each situation should be considered and analyzed individually. Therefore, you should always consult with competent employment counsel regarding any issues discussed here. 

Click HERE to learn more about Frank Cania, author of Employers’ HR Advisor.

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