Sexism and IP theft claims dog Uber

By BBC

Uber’s meteoric rise was dogged by incessant lawsuits, enraged protests and staggering losses. Or, as co-founder Travis Kalanick might consider it right now, the “good old days”.

He now faces tougher challenges. This week began with Uber opening an investigation into serious, systemic sexual harassment, and ended with being dramatically sued over claims its self-driving company stole technology from Google.

Uber’s long been a company synonymous with the worst traits of Silicon Valley. Hyper-aggressive business practices and a ruthless approach to competition have seen it constantly at war with governments, as well as the industries it has disrupted so devastatingly in what feels like the blink of an eye.

The level of shock expressed last weekend, when former employee Susan Fowler detailed what she said was rampant discrimination at the firm, was perhaps matched in volume by those saying “I told you so”.

Much of the frustration directed at Uber has been because it took a barrage of negative press to kick the company into action over a culture most often described, by insiders and out, as “toxic”.

In an attempt to repair some of the damage, Mr Kalanick stood in front of his staff on Tuesday and offered – according to a person at the meeting – an emotional “we must do better”.

Later in the week, a group of around 100 female engineers had a further meeting with Mr Kalanick, audio from which was obtained by Buzzfeed. His staff told him no investigation was needed to expose problems at the company, he just had to start “listening to your own people”.

“Fair enough,” came the reply.

‘Forced out’

What will have become clear to Mr Kalanick at that point is that for the first time in the company’s history, “more money” is no longer his quick fix.

This story has so far been focused on San Francisco, where Uber is headquartered, and the location where Ms Fowler worked.

But shortly after the allegations came to light, several former Uber employees contacted the BBC with concerns about how the company was operating in its offices around the world. All requested to remain anonymous.

In 2014, Uber – by this point five years old – began operating in Singapore, which became its hub for operations across Asia.

“It’s definitely a much wider problem than just in the United States,” one source, a former employee at the Singapore office, told me.

He said problems began emerging as the company began to experience “completely insane growth”.

“They grew so quickly they just weren’t equipped. At the beginning there were just no formalised HR processes, nothing of the sort.”

In Ms Fowler’s blog post, she alleged her performance review scores were retrospectively lowered to make it look like she had been underperforming.

Another former employee spoken to by the BBC worked for Uber in a major European city – though requested we did not cite the specific country as the team was small.

She said instances of “threatening behaviour” between staff were reported, but “no action was taken”. She added that there was a “lack of support” or “any kind of empathy” for employees that felt threatened.

“I hope [the] investigation will somehow help the employees but I highly doubt it,” she said

‘Nothing was done’

That investigation, announced last Sunday, is being led by Eric Holder, who formerly served under President Obama as attorney general – the highest-ranking law enforcement position in the US.

Uber has not said when Mr Holder will report back, but has pledged the investigation will swift and thorough.

When contacted by the BBC about the scope of the investigation, an Uber spokeswoman would not discuss whether it would be looking at potential issues outside of the US.

Many have criticised Uber over the specifics of the probe. Mr Holder has worked for the company in the past – offering legal advice in the firm’s battle to avoid having to gather fingerprints when vetting drivers.

Also part of the investigation team is Arianna Huffington, best known as co-founder of the Huffington Post, and currently a member of Uber’s board.

Leading the frustration at Uber’s response are Mitch and Freada Kapor from Kapor Capital, investors in Uber since 2010.

  

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