Uber’s toxic corporate culture – much more than a PR problem

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Exec immunity, too much regional autonomy and competition rather than collaboration, have all contributed to Uber's high-profile problems

From sexual harassment allegations to footage of the CEO in an argument, Uber has been rocked by scandal. Making headlines most recently has been CEO Travis Kalanick's announcement that he will take a leave of absence for an unspecified period; which follows a series of top level departures, including senior vice president for business Emil Michael and president Jeff Jones.

However, this is more than a PR problem. The common link between all of these headline-grabbing incidents is an underlying toxic and aggressive corporate culture that has trickled from the top of the organisation and infiltrated the entire company. Uber must take the blog post by a former employee that went viral, alleging sexual harassment, as a stark warning that something must change before something else gives.

So what’s wrong with Uber’s corporate culture?

Competition creates chaos

First, it's obvious that competition curbs collaboration at this tech giant. Workers at lower levels are forced to fight for recognition and are pitted against each other as the only way to get ahead. While this strategy might work on a short-term basis to support rapid growth, it is unsustainable and very dangerous.

Uber must find a way to drive better performance and financial results without this 'dog eat dog' culture. The two are not mutually exclusive. It needs to encourage employees at lower levels to collaborate in developing ideas and initiatives, rather than working against each other. Leaders at the top must also learn to consider and embrace these ideas, activating them across the company, even on a trial basis, if appropriate.

Top execs are immune to retribution

While staff at the bottom of the hierarchy fight to get ahead, managers at higher levels (particularly those who hit their targets) are immune to retribution. It seems that if someone at a lower level reports misconduct by a top exec the HR function fails to act.

This problem is evident throughout the business. There have been several lawsuits in various countries in which Uber operates, from former employees alleging sexual harassment or verbal abuse at the hands of managers. According to the reports these very serious claims of misconduct are pushed aside, or buried, so as not to hinder the performance and position of these higher-level employees.

These issues will not, and should not, go away by the HR function disregarding them. Uber must enforce a proper system that deals with these claims in a fair and reasonable manner, no matter who makes the complaint or who it has been made against. Nobody should be afraid to report serious issues to HR and Uber should take the former employee’s aforementioned blog post as a serious warning of what happens if things are ignored.

Out of sight, out of mind

Through a process of regional autonomy and devolution managers have swerved supervision away from them. This has led to the problem of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ at Uber. These silos work in isolation without a clear overarching strategy and purpose. While there’s always going to be different functions in large companies they must be led from the top with a clear and simple collective purpose and narration. The only purpose and narrative that is currently coming from the top seems to be toxic.

Cultural change is ignited from the top

There are always going to be teething issues with companies that grow rapidly and try to transition from a start-up to a big business. This is particularly true in the tech sector and Uber is a prime example of what can go wrong.

But all is not lost. Uber’s rapid growth has meant it is one of the most recognised brands in the world. If it learns to fix its problems it can set itself up for many more years of success. But the only way to do this is through swift and meaningful action from the top. Leaders must incite change rather than acting as a roadblock. They must embrace a collaborative way of working throughout the company, ensure they and other managers are held accountable for what they do, and present a clear and simple strategy, purpose and narrative to the employees. They should understand from the events over the past few months that action from the top leads to reaction.

Atif Sheikh is the chief executive of Business 3.0, the momentum consultancy

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