By Jessi Hempel
In January, I sat down with Liane Hornsey, who until yesterday was Uberâ€™s HR chief, to discuss the progress sheâ€™d made helping to reform Uberâ€™s culture. The company had invited me to report on its turnaround, in the run-up to the release of its redesigned drivers app. But I was interested in something else: how were things at Uber since CEO Dara Khosrowshahi arrived?
She told me that she had asked an employeeâ€”a three-year veteran at Uberâ€”how it felt to be there. â€œShe said to me, â€˜We used to feel we were good people doing good things,â€™â€� Hornsey reflected. â€œâ€˜Now we feel weâ€™re bad people doing bad things.â€™â€� She endeavored to fix that feeling.
Hornsey had arrived at Uber just a few weeks before Susan Fowler published the February 2017 blog post that propelled the company into a turmoil it is still working to recover from. She introduced herself to the staff at the teary all-hands meeting following that post. During her tenure, she oversaw numerous investigations, ran point on the Holder report, navigated through dozens of staff departures, served on the 14-person interim leadership team that ran the company after Travis Kalanick was ousted, and tried to save Uber from itself.
Yesterday evening, eighteen months later, Hornsey resigned.
Her email to employees, sent yesterday, provides no details on the reason for her departure, nor does the email Khosrowshahi sent to staff. But it arrives hours after Reuters reported that an anonymous group of Uber employees had complained that she systematically dismissed complaints of race-based discrimination. Regardless of the content of these claims, the complaint process and Hornseyâ€™s subsequent departure is a mark of what Hornsey helped create during her time at the companyâ€”a system that allows for empowered employees to call executives out for bad behavior, and demand swift action.
Hornseyâ€™s resignation is also a sign of what hasnâ€™t yet been achieved. Disgruntled employees still donâ€™t trust Uberâ€™s systems, and they are turning to the media to air their grievances. This suggests that Khosrowshahiâ€™s attempt to build trust among employees, an assurance that the company can address challenges internally, has not taken hold.
â€œWe do the right thing. Period,â€� Khosrowshahi repeats often, by way of a mantra. And when it comes to corporate optics, thereâ€™s a prescribed list of right things. When there is a scandal for example, someone must leave. But the actual right things, the things that honor people, advance a business, and begin to heal a fractured culture, are not always so clear. Regardless of the events that provoked it, Hornseyâ€™s departure is a crisis for the companyâ€”a crisis that Hornsey is no longer available to manage.
To be clear, the details of what happened at Uber have yet to be released. According to Reuters, an anonymous group of employees, identifying themselves as people of color, said Hornsey made derogatory remarks about the companyâ€™s global head of diversity and inclusion, hired in January, Bernard Coleman, and disparaged and threatened Bozoma Saint John, who stepped down last month.
Reuters reports that this conflict was the reason Saint John recently left her role as chief brand officer at Uber to take a job as chief marketing officer of the talent agency Endeavor. Also, Reuters reviewed an email in which investigators from the law firm Gibson Dunn told the group of employees making the complaint that some of their allegations had been substantiated.
One things is clear: the next person to step into the Chief HR role at Uber will inherit a very different culture, thanks to the structures Hornsey built. She arrived at an organization in crisis, and one that had grown to an enormous size without having any of the human resource rails that one might expect of a company of Uberâ€™s size. The herculean task of building out a set of systems and practices for managing the organization fell to her.
Nothing she did went beyond what industry peers were already doing. This is a company that boasted in January about newly instituted quarterly volunteer days, allowing employees to serve soup at a homeless shelter or play with hospitalized kids, as though it was something unique. Given that Uber had never compensated employees for volunteer time or demonstrated any philanthropic inklings, it was notable. Compared to other companies of its size and scale, it was notable that the program hadnâ€™t existed before.
But most of Hornseyâ€™s work involved building common company processes, like less biased performance reviews or management training programs. Once sheâ€™d seen the company through its initial crisis, facilitating investigations, responding directly to hundreds of emails and conducting some 200 â€œlistening sessions,â€� Hornsey instituted the move designed to be her signature: pay parity for all employees, regardless of race or gender. â€œVery few executives want to go to this place in any company. Thereâ€™s always resistance,â€� she told me in January. This was before Khosrowshahi started, and sheâ€™d had to sell the idea to all of the other 14 members of the executive leadership team. The larger challenge with pay parity comes well after its instituted, of course, when managers need to negotiate salaries for new hires.
Despite this transparency, Uber still got flack for refusing to release the full report commissioned in the wake of Fowlerâ€™s memo. Compiled by former District Attorney Eric Holder, it resulted in 47 recommendations that were made public in June. (A second law firm was hired specifically to investigate sexual harassment after the company received 215 complaints in the wake of Fowlerâ€™s memo.) To this day, Holderâ€™s report hasnâ€™t been published publicly. I asked Hornsey why, given the extreme focus on transparency, the company wouldnâ€™t publish it. â€œItâ€™s totally a board decision,â€� she said. â€œHonestly, Iâ€™ve read it. I donâ€™t know why you wouldnâ€™t release it.â€�
Transparency alone, the kind that might have come from releasing that report, doesnâ€™t fix a trust problem. As the writer Rachel Botsman, author of â€œWho Can You Trust,â€� has said, transparency happens once trust has been broken. What matters isnâ€™t that you reveal everything, but that people believe you are honest with them, and that they can, in turn, be honest with you.
Ultimately, thatâ€™s why Hornsey had to resign, regardless of what comes of the investigation underway. Khosrowshahi needs a strong, experienced HR lead, but he needs his employeeâ€™s trust even more. Right now, in the face of little publicly released information and hints of a concerning investigation, leaving is what it means to do the right thingâ€”period.
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