Uber Taps Eric Holder to Investigate Discrimination Claims

  • Review follows claims by former engineer of sexual harassment
  • Focus back on Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture

Uber Taps Eric Holder to Lead Sexual Harassment Probe

Uber Technologies Inc. appointed former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an independent review into claims of sexual harassment by a former software engineer.

Arianna Huffington, head of human resources Liane Hornsey and Angela Padilla, the company’s associate general counsel, will also participate in the investigation, Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick wrote in a memo to employees on Monday.

In a blog post on Sunday, Susan Fowler said she was propositioned by her manager and that her reports were ignored by human resources. While the accusation is drawing renewed attention to the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, it’s just the latest in a series of accusations by women who say they’ve been sidelined in the male-dominated industry, especially in engineering roles. Kalanick said 15 percent of Uber’s technology staff are women.

“I believe in creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do,” Kalanick wrote. “What is driving me through all this is a determination that we take what’s happened as an opportunity to heal wounds of the past and set a new standard for justice in the workplace.”

The gender-discrimination issue erupted just as another public-relations headache was beginning to recede. The company faced allegations that it helped break a New York taxi union strike that was protesting President Donald Trump’s refugee ban. The hashtag #deleteuber trended on Twitter, and Kalanick left a board advising Trump in an attempt to quiet the backlash. That hashtag resurfaced after Fowler posted her account.

Y-Vonne Hutchinson, a labor rights lawyer who founded ReadySet, a diversity solutions firm, said the review was a “good start” but questioned whether it would be independent enough to sufficiently improve Uber’s culture.

“This is only part of the problem with this company -- I think quite often diversity and inclusion can be symptoms of a larger issue,” said Hutchinson, who co-founded Project Include, a group promoting diversity in Silicon Valley. “If we come out of this investigation and people aren’t fired, it’s going to say a lot about the strength of this investigation. Because what would it take for people to get fired?”

The review will look at specific issues raised by Fowler, as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly, Kalanick said. Holder and another attorney, Tammy Albarran, who will also help lead the inquiry, are partners at the law firm Covington & Burling LLP, which previously investigated Airbnb Inc. over its handling of discrimination on its home-sharing platform.

Fowler, who wrote that she left Uber in December, alleged in her blog post that her manager at Uber sent her messages over the company’s chat service, saying that he was in an open relationship. Fowler said that she had heard similar stories from other women at Uber, and that some of them involved the same manager. Fowler, who declined to comment on her original posting, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment on Kalanick’s memo.

“It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR,” she wrote. Human resources told her that the manager was a “high performer” and that they “wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part,” Fowler said.

The former engineer’s account is the latest high-profile discrimination issue to send shockwaves through Silicon Valley. The most visible recent example is Ellen Pao’s gender-discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2015. A former engineer at Twitter Inc. claimed a year ago that she was forced out after complaining that men took up a disproportionate number of senior positions in her department. Twitter and Kleiner Perkins, which won the case, denied those claims. In 2013, Adria Richards received threats of violence and was fired after posting an image of male programmers she accused of making inappropriate innuendos at a public conference.

“It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice,” Kalanick wrote.

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