As Uber Grew Hastily, Diversity Took a Backseat
Under pressure from harassment and sexism allegations, the ride-hailing giant is rethinking its approach to hiring.
By Olivia Zaleski and Eric Newcomer
March 24, 2017
Uber Pledges to Fix Its Corporate Culture Amid Scandals
Efforts to hire more women and people of color at Uber Technologies Inc. have been long hindered by a peculiar constraint. Members of the recruiting team were denied access to information about the company’s diversity makeup, according to several people familiar with Uber’s hiring apparatus.
The recruiting arm assigns some members to focus on hiring diverse candidates, an initiative that has received enthusiastic endorsements from Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick. But the team found it difficult to do its job without demographic data, which is a common way to identify a company’s weaknesses and set hiring targets, the people said. Like many of its Silicon Valley cohorts, Uber is an obsessively data-driven company, where recruiters log every interaction with candidates and scour their social media profiles. The diversity data limitation was especially vexing because other technology companies of its size release annual diversity reports to the public.
Uber’s demographic composition has been a topic of interest for people outside the recruiting department, too. Various female software engineers have requested such data for years and were told the human resources department didn’t track it. Some of them began calculating it on their own in an attempt to determine which managers seemed friendliest to women, said a former employee.
Beyond the lack of data, the company’s recruitment efforts struggled from a dearth of focus, funding and leadership. At least a half-dozen Uber recruiters involved in diversity initiatives have left in the past 18 months. Several of those people said diversity took a backseat to the company’s needs to hire quickly.
Liane Hornsey, Uber’s senior vice president of HR, said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday that she’s working to clean up Uber’s cultural problems, including its approach to recruiting. Hornsey, who joined the company this year, said Uber revised 1,500 job descriptions to remove unconscious bias from the language, will hold job interview training for women in tech and is ensuring its panel of interviewers is diverse. Uber plans to release a diversity report for the first time next week. “We’re spending a good deal of time reflecting on what will lead to true diversity and inclusion,” Hornsey wrote in an email. “Clearly, this matters a lot to all of us and must underpin everything we do—it’s the foundation of positive cultural change.”
Bloomberg spoke with about a dozen current and former Uber staffers familiar with the company’s hiring process, including several members of the recruiting team. They asked not to be identified because many have employment contracts that bar them from criticizing the company. Their experiences illustrate how a startup defined on breaking rules and expanding at any cost can develop into a homogenous work environment, where discrimination goes unchecked. Uber, valued at $69 billion, has become the latest test case for Silicon Valley’s enduring inclusion issues.
Uber is under enormous scrutiny following recent accusations of a toxic and sexist workplace. Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at the company, wrote a blog post last month alleging that her boss at Uber propositioned her for sex and was protected by HR. She also said women were discriminated against throughout the technical group.
The ride-hailing giant is now trying to rehabilitate its image and ease employee unrest. It hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the sexual harassment claims and the company’s culture. The results of this probe are expected by the end of April and will be released to the public, according to Arianna Huffington, an Uber board member.
The company all-hands meeting each Tuesday has become a weekly airing of grievances, where Kalanick has offered several tearful apologies. The 40-year-old CEO delivered one such atonement publicly after Bloomberg published a video showing him arguing with an Uber driver. Kalanick said he needed “leadership help” and would hire an operating chief. Some insiders are pushing for a strong female leader to take the role.
As the company prepares a full diversity report, it has presented one stat: 15 percent of engineers, scientists and product managers are women. This is lower than other startups, and even its bigger and older tech peers, including Facebook Inc., which has struggled with its own diversity hiring initiatives. Airbnb Inc., which was founded around the same time as Uber, said 26 percent of technical employees are women. Lyft Inc., which is Uber’s main competitor in the U.S., said it plans to release its first diversity report in the coming weeks.
Companies that have successfully improved diversity numbers typically take a systematic approach to diversity hiring processes and goals, make their inclusion commitments clear and reach out to and recruit from diverse professional organizations, said Andrea Hoffman, founder of the diversity consulting firm Culture Shift Labs. Those initiatives must be driven by corporate chiefs, she said. “This is a multifaceted approach that starts at the top.”
In the occasional meeting between Kalanick and some members of Uber’s recruiting team, the CEO would strike an upbeat tone toward diversity. But when staff would propose investing more in that area, recruiters became frustrated after he repeatedly postponed decisions, said a person familiar with the gatherings. “Let’s keep jamming on this,” Kalanick would say, deploying a common Uber-ism.
Kalanick would also refer to the company’s 14 cultural values, which include “meritocracy and toe-stepping,” meaning good ideas are valued above all else. Employees were evaluated in performance reviews on how well they exhibited these values. None of the 14 values refer specifically to diversity or inclusion. Kalanick often said diversity comes in many different forms and resisted the idea of prioritizing race or gender, according to two people. He’s said Uber should look for the “best minds.”
“The culture that Uber’s wanted to build is not one that’s designed to be inclusive and equitable”
In 2015, as Uber was expanding worldwide and more than doubling headcount, it hired Damien Hooper-Campbell as global diversity and inclusion lead. Hooper-Campbell, who is black, has extensive experience in the area. He was an assistant director of minority initiatives at Harvard Business School, a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. vice president focused on inclusion efforts and a diversity strategist at Google. Renee Atwood, Uber’s former HR head, held his appointment up as proof that the company was working to create a more diverse culture in a 2015 Wired story.
Hooper-Campbell was initially tasked with planning diversity recruitment programs and outlining goals to make Uber more hospitable to minorities working there, said two former employees. The move was encouraging to his fellow recruiters, who were frustrated by a lack of leadership on diversity projects at the company’s San Francisco headquarters.
But Hooper-Campbell’s job soon changed. He was dispatched to Oakland to serve as a face of the company to local officials and help oversee logistics around the new office, the people said. “His role was in constant flux,” Sean Cervera, a former colleague on Uber’s recruiting team, recalled in a blog post this month. Within a year, Hooper-Campbell left to become chief diversity officer at EBay Inc. A spokeswoman for EBay declined to make him available for an interview.
Cervera wrote that he had been enlisted to help Uber find more diverse recruits in technical roles but was only allowed to spend 10 percent of his time on inclusion initiatives. Cervera, who now works on inclusion recruiting programs at Microsoft Corp.’s LinkedIn, declined to comment.
At times, Uber’s recruiting leadership seemed to be preoccupied with gimmicks. Last year, Jim Baaden, the global head of recruiting, hosted several events for job candidates in which attendees were asked to break into small groups and put on blindfolds, said five people familiar with the proceedings. Candidates were instructed to pluck sateen blindfolds from a cardboard box and silently arrange puzzle pieces into molded shapes. The Uber staff hosting the event set a timer to seven minutes, while they clapped vigorously and blasted pop music from a stereo. Afterward, an Uber recruiting coordinator explained that the purpose of the exercise was to see how applicants approach problems in a chaotic situation. The exercise, which is called Colourblind, is also used by other companies as a test of teamwork.
Uber missed an important opportunity last year by not placing a higher priority on diversity, said Joelle Emerson, who runs diversity consulting firm Paradigm. Uber’s staff more than doubled again in 2016, exceeding 12,000 employees today. “The culture that Uber’s wanted to build is not one that’s designed to be inclusive and equitable and set everyone up for success. And I think that is the underlying problem,” Emerson said. “Having a more diverse organization can help drive a more positive culture.”
After repeated vacillations by Kalanick, Uber eventually committed cash to diversity programs. In October, Baaden distributed $25,000 apiece to several identity-based employee resource groups at Uber, catering to LGBT, female engineers and others, a person familiar with the matter said. A few months later, the company hired Bernard Coleman, the former chief diversity officer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, as head of diversity and inclusion.
Baaden pointed to the addition of Coleman in a recent interview as evidence that the company cares about diversity. “You bring in someone like that, the expectation is that it continues to be an important consideration for us as we invest and think about programs and think about different ways to engage a diverse population of both employees and talent,” Baaden said.
But Mitch and Freada Kapor, a pair of early Uber investors, believe the company isn’t doing enough. Uber has had “countless opportunities to do the right thing,” they wrote in a blog post. “Uber’s outsize success in terms of growth of market share, revenues and valuation are impressive, but can never excuse a culture plagued by disrespect, exclusionary cliques, lack of diversity, and tolerance for bullying and harassment of every form.”
A week after their rebuke, Kalanick asked for the resignation of a newly appointed senior executive, who was investigated by his former employer over a sexual harassment claim. Uber recruiters weren’t aware of the issue before he was hired. The executive, Amit Singhal, denied the allegation. Hornsey, the new HR head, said on Tuesday that the company has been talking with the Kapors and will take their input into account. On Thursday, Kalanick met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The scandals are beginning to take a toll on Uber’s ability to recruit talent. Cassie Vance, a brand strategy expert in San Francisco, said she was approached by the ride-hailing giant this month about a job opportunity. “Under normal circumstances, I’d love to have a conversation regarding a role like this, because it sounds right up my alley. But you and I both know these are not normal circumstances,” Vance wrote to the recruiter, according to a copy of the LinkedIn message seen by Bloomberg. “To say that I’d be embarrassed to have Uber on my résumé would be a gross understatement. I know I’m not the only person that feels this way, and if you ask me, there’s no marketing strategy that is going to get you guys out of the hole you’ve dug yourselves.”