Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an investigation of sexual harassment claims that are threatening to further blight the ride-sharing company’s public image.
Kalanick recently quit Donald Trump’s economic advisory council after thousands of customers reacted angrily to the president’s immigration ban, and to Uber’s decision to drop ride prices during a related cab driver strike.
Now, a former engineer at the company has written in a blog post that she was sexually harassed by a superior, only to have her claims dealt with appallingly by senior managers and human resource officials. Their alleged reaction included telling her the offender wouldn’t be punished because he was a “high performer” and subsequent threats to fire her if she complained again.
Susan Fowler said she eventually discovered that other female employees had been treated just as poorly, while suggesting this directly contributed to a large number of women leaving the San Francisco-based company. Other former employees of Uber have since come forward to support claims of poor management practices.
CEOs in Kalanick’s situation must, of course, tread carefully. If they react too slowly they can appear to be condoning inappropriate behavior. But overreact and they can give oxygen to false or exaggerated claims.
That’s why it’s crucial to quickly assess whether a negative event risks becoming a public scandal in need of an equally public response. Events more at risk of going prime-time are usually either surprising, vivid, emotional, or pertinent to a central attribute of the company or brand, Alice M. Tybout, an author and professor of marketing at Northwestern University, wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
“I have just read Susan Fowler’s blog. What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in,” Kalanick wrote in an email to staff. “We seek to make Uber a just workplace and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber—and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.”
Kalanick claimed reading Fowler’s blog, which was posted Sunday and can be seen in full here, was the first time her allegations had come to his attention.
Shortly after issuing his statement, he confirmed the company had hired outside counsel, led by Holder, to investigate the matter. Uber independent board member Arianna Huffington also will be involved in investigations, the company said.