Blogs. Companies either love them or loathe them. Done well, they can engage an audience, encourage conversation or showcase someone’s knowledge on a key topic. Susan Fowler’s high profile blog on her time at Uber ticked all the ‘done well’ boxes, yet I’m guessing Uber secretly loathed it.
In February this year, Susan Fowler published a blog on her website detailing her time working as a site reliability engineer (SRE) at ride sharing start-up turned industry giant, Uber. Between joining in November 2015, to leaving in December 2016, Fowler described a culture of sexism, harassment and bullying which has tainted the brand and set the ball rolling on a cataclysm of events which culminated with CEO, Travis Kalanick resigning from his role just a few short days ago.
While Kalanick takes the brunt of the blame for a number of high profile cock ups, you can’t help but ask where HR were in all of this. If you’ve not caught up yet, here is a timeline of how disaster unfolded at Uber:
February 19 – Susan’s blog
The beginning of the end for Kalanick as former engineer, Fowler, details numerous instances of sexual harassment and bullying reported to HR which were continually brushed aside. Her time at Uber details the plight of an individual who was passionate about her work, but failed by her company.
February 20 – Uber brings in the lawyers
The day after Fowler’s blog hits, Uber hires former US attorney general Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran, both partners at law firm Covington & Burling, to investigate the claims.
March 1 – Dash cam meltdown
Footage emerges of Kalanick swearing at an Uber driver regarding the company’s treatment of drivers (ironic!). Kalanick issued an apology to all his employees by email and commits to getting leadership help.
March 24 – Karaoke and sexual favours
Five employees (paywall) at Uber, including Kalanick were reported to have frequented a karaoke bar in Seoul during a business trip to South Korea, all standard fayre until you realise that the bar also offers escort services. The report indicates that a female employee was present who complained to HR about the incident.
June 6 – Employee cleanse
Uber fired 20 employees following an investigation into its workplace culture by law firm Perkins Coie. The firm had investigated 215 staff complaints going back to 2012, 54 were related to discrimination, 47 related to sexual harassment, 45 to unprofessional behaviour, and 33 to bullying.
Uber also hired Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei to train all its managers.
June 7 – Uber gets tough on execs
The company release Uber’s president of business in Asia, Eric Alexander, for his mishandling of a 2014 rape investigation in India.
June 12 – No.2 is no more
Uber’s number 2, and Kalanick’s confidante, Emil Michael leaves the company as part of a top-level exodus following the departures of president and marketing chief Jeff Jones, finance chief Gautam Gupta, and senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal.
Michael was implicated in the escort / karaoke bar scandal and suggested that Uber dig up dirt on journalists critical of Uber.
June 13 – Holder’s report
Uber release a 13-page report by Eric Holder recommending guidance on a number of topics including alcohol consumption, workplace relationships, and effectively handling complaints. Uber unanimously adopt all the recommendations.
June 14 – Kalanick takes an indefinite leave of absence
Following the death of his mother, Kalanick takes an indefinite leave of absence leaving the company’s day to day operations in the hands of a 14 member committee of senior execs.
In an unrelated matter David Bonderman, venture capitalist and Uber board of directors member, resigns following a sexist remark during an all-staff meeting. Interrupting a speech celebrating the boards ratio of women increasing from 14% to 25% with a ‘joke’ implying that there will be more talking at future meetings.
June 20 – 180 days of change campaign
Uber announces a new campaign to reshape the struggling company’s image. New initiatives such as tipping drivers and adding driver-injury protection insurance is welcomed among staff.
June 21 – Kalanick shown the door
At the request of five investors, Kalanick resigns.
Money where your mouth is
You’re probably thinking this is a fairly in-depth piece to highlight sexual harassment at Uber, and you’re right but there is a reason behind the word count.
The timeline shows an amalgamation of reports, firings, resignations, marketing campaigns and legal undertakings which would have cost Uber millions, and a further few billions in share valuations. Online backlash such as the #deleteUber campaign also saw 500,000 users delete their accounts in just one week.
If you take Fowler’s blog at face value (and considering the legal investigations, 13-page recommendation report, and numerous firings and resignations it would be hard not to) all of this could have been avoided if legitimate concerns brought to the attention of HR would have been treated with the care and attention they deserve. Imagine how much time, effort and money would have been saved had the correct processes been followed and had they undertaken a no-nonsense stance on harassment, be it sexual, racial or gender related.
Equality is the easy part
It may sound condescending but it’s true. Treating all people equally should be the easy part. Making sure that employees are valued on their performance and not their gender, sexual orientation or race is simple. It shouldn’t get to the stage where lawyers are brought in to run reports on workplace culture. You needn’t pay millions investigating reports of harassment, especially when many of those reports, allegedly, were accompanied by hard facts and evidence.
For too long employees have seen HR as being only about the welfare of the employer. If handled correctly, HR should protect the rights of everyone within a business regardless of position.
Sadly, heads needed to roll before changes were made at Uber. But with the company valued at over £60bn, they are afforded the time to implement those changes. Unfortunately, not all companies are as fortunate as Uber. Second, third and fourth chances are unheard of outside multi-billion-pound industry giants. The ones who should know better rarely do, and those that do, rarely get the credit they deserve.
Internal HR departments can be a great tool but if a company is toxic then the spread will infect all. It took more time and effort for Uber to do a bad job than it would have taken for them to do a good one. Had the HR department stood firm and done the role they were in place to do, then the rest of the timeline falls away.
It remains to be seen whether Uber can bounce back from this. One thing that is certain is that they will be under a microscope from this point on, as people wait for the next inevitable addition to the timeline.
You may have read in the news recently about a graduate who had been the recipient of an email that clearly wasn't meant for her in response to an office administrator job application. Nothing out of the blue here you say, people get knocked back for jobs all the time. Below is an excerpt from the email:
“Home educated oddball. Can't get a job since leaving uni. Forages for mushrooms.
"Difficult to assess from her CV - might be very good but equally could be a biscuit short of a packet or a left-wing loon tree hugger.
"Worth an interview if only for a laugh."
Ouch. Understandably, the graduate was upset and did the logical thing, contacting the BBC to express her dismay. She told BBC South East:
“I thought how dare somebody say that about my CV and myself. I was just absolutely furious.”
The company, Tecomak Environmental Services (did they really refer to someone as a tree hugger?) have opened an internal investigation (should be open and shut, just check the sender) and company director, Ross Black, issued the following statement:
“Clearly the comments were informal and not to the high professional standard you would expect from a company like ours. I understand that it must have been upsetting to read the comments and I apologise on behalf of the company and the employees concerned.”
“We genuinely felt your application and CV was interesting and you were shortlisted from a long list of over 40 candidates. We would be more than happy to interview you as one of the strongest candidates that have applied and, if you were to accept an interview, you can be assured that your application will be treated fairly and appropriately.”
The graduate declined the offer of an interview.
What have we learned?
They say that each mistake is an opportunity to learn, so what has this taught us? Don’t put insults in writing? Check emails before sending them? The BBC are running short on news? Graduates have feelings too? All the above?
In all seriousness, no one likes to be told they aren’t good enough, especially when they are made to be the butt of a joke. As a company, Tecomak let themselves down by showcasing a childish side of their business and the people they employ.
On the other hand, the graduate could take this as an opportunity to look at her CV and see where these comments could originate from. Is she a little too personal in parts? Is the CV tailored to the type of role she is applying for?
Representing your business
No matter your role in a business, be it director, manager or admin staff you are always representing the company. From internal emails, to social media posts, anything you write that could be consumed by your customers should be sense checked. If in doubt, don’t send it.
In a shock decision, the Supreme Court have ruled that fees for bringing employment tribunal claims are unlawful and will be removed with immediate effect.
In 2013, the Government introduced fees claiming it would cut the number of weak and malicious cases, although statistics provided by the Government suggest it may have also helped to prevent legitimate cases with 79% fewer cases being brought to tribunal since the fees were introduced.
The decision, following a judicial review application by Unison, holds that the statutory order which introduced the fee system was not a lawful exercise of the Lord Chancellor’s statutory powers, because the requirement to pay tribunal fees unjustifiably interferes with access to justice, frustrates the enforcement of employment rights, and discriminates unlawfully.
While the Supreme Court held that the Lord Chancellor did have legitimate aims in introducing tribunal fees, the fee regime was not a proportionate means of achieving those aims. In fact, the Supreme Court held that for any fees to be lawful they must be reasonably affordable for low or middle income families. The current level of fees meant that claimants would need to restrict their ordinary and reasonable living expenses to afford bringing a claim.
What does this mean for employers?
Until further notice, employment tribunal fees will be null, meaning that the number of employees bringing a claim against their employers is expected to rise dramatically. No longer will they need to balance financial obligations with perceived access to justice, so as an employer you will need to ensure due diligence is undertaken whenever a decision is made which could bring about a case.
On a lighter note, for those employers who have paid fees within the last three years, the Lord Chancellor has given a legally binding promise to refund any tribunal fees, a process which is expected to begin immediately.
Out of time applications
Employment tribunal claims for unfair dismissal or discrimination are subject to strict time limits of three months in most cases, but this judgment could potentially open the floodgates for any employee dismissed in the last three years to bring about a claim.
As the Supreme Court has already held that fees have deterred claimants from seeking access to justice, it is arguable that the tribunal will take this into account when assessing any out of time applications. All employers need to be aware of this risk and seek advice if they hear from the tribunal in these circumstances.
If you are unsure what this judgment means for your business please don’t hesitate to contact us for more information. We will be holding a webinar on Tuesday 1st August at 12pm to discuss this decision, please click here to book your place.
We will also be releasing a free podcast where will be discussing the decision in more detail, stay tuned for more information.
May 16th saw the release of the fourth edition of the Aviva Working Lives Report, which examines the attitudes and experiences of employers and employees on issues affecting the present and future of the UK workplace.
According to the report, seven in ten UK employees admit to attending work while unwell when they should have taken the day off. In contrast, 23% of those surveyed admitted to feigning illness to take the day off, indicating that UK employees are three times as likely to attend work as ‘pull a sickie’.
One symptom of ‘presenteeism’ is most prevalent in the private sector, with 41% of employees fearful of taking time off due to the heavy workload upon their return. By continuing to work throughout their ill health, employees are actually more likely to be less productive as a consequence, and could end up infecting other employees in the business.
Sick days taken in the UK fell to their lowest on record to 4.3 days in 2016, compared to 7.2 days in 1993. But is this really a benefit for employers?
Grahame Davies, head of business at Opsium Employer Support, said:
“Businesses will feel encouraged that the number of sick days have fallen, but by encouraging employees to remain home and resting when they are genuinely ill, there is a better chance of them recovering in a shorter time frame. As the Aviva report suggests, employees that force themselves into work while ill are less productive, take longer to recover and could infect the rest of the team.
“Tackling absenteeism is about discovering the root cause of an absence and finding ways you can work with your employees to find a solution. One area for businesses to concentrate on is wellbeing initiatives as these can boost morale, productivity and reduce stress and anxiety in the workplace.”
Health and wellbeing
Grahame’s advice is echoed in Aviva’s findings, with employees who receive health and wellbeing benefits found to be 41% happier, with 32% feeling an improved morale and 30% made to feel more productive.
Flexible working was also a key factor in the health and wellbeing of employees, with 68% saying they felt happier in a role as a result of flexible hours.
Don’t you just love a good argument. The coming together of two differing opinions, expertly dissected by passionate individuals… Okay, more like petty name calling escalating from an inane action.
A poll of 2,000 British workers conducted by E.ON found the top 10 causes of arguments in the office to be:
2. Eating smelly food around co-workers
3. Loudness of phone calls, music and/or TV
4. Untidiness when using other people's desks
5. Rounds for tea making
6. Bad time keeping
7. Stealing food from the fridge
8. Holding meetings/group conversations when others are trying to work
9. The blinds/lighting
10. Booking out shared spaces
While these reasons all seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, leaving them to fester could result in increased tension in the office that could spill out into the rest of the team. That’s why we’ve put together a few suggestions on how to reduce the tension and get the office working in perfect harmony.
Sounds simple enough but when faced with employees arguing and disrupting the office it’s easy to lose your patience. Sometimes it’s best to remove one or both individuals from the situation and allow them to cool down. Arguments are highly emotive and things are often said in anger that are instantly regrettable. Manage the situation first and then get to the root of the problem.
Give both sides your ear
The evidence seems crystal clear. Worker A started the argument and Worker B retaliated, open and shut case. Or is it?
It’s easy to think you have all the answers, but have you asked the right questions? Take the time to listen to both sides of the story and then take appropriate action. Failure to do so could result in lingering animosity.
Set out your stall early
The top 10 list features many causes that could have been easily solved by the companies involved setting out their stalls in a clear and concise manner. For example, ban employees from eating smelly foods in the office, formalise being mindful of others when using the phone, create a centralised booking system for using shared spaces and structured etiquette for temperature, lighting and time keeping. If you leave employees to create their own rules in the office, you’ll soon be managing a sequel to lord of the flies.
Allow people a chance to air their grievances
Don’t bury your head in the ground and assume that everything is rosy. Allow people to express their opinions in a safe environment. Be open to disagreements; if handled correctly, disagreements are a great catalyst for change. Encourage people to have opinions and provide constructive criticism, you never know what could come out of it.
Above all else remember that your average workplace is a melting pot of different cultures, religions, beliefs and personalities. If you manage it right, you could create something truly incredible, get it wrong and you’ll be another stat on a survey.
Image: credit Getty Images
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