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Travis Kalanick, King of HR Fails, Finally Ousted from Uber

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced his resignation yesterday after two board members arrived at his Chicago hotel room with a list of demands from shareholders.

The surprising thing isn’t that Kalanick resigned—it’s that it didn’t happen sooner. Uber’s company culture has been a minefield from the beginning, even though the business is as booming as ever.

It’s enough to make any HR manager bang their head against the wall.

There were so many moments in the past few years when shareholders and board members might have held Kalanick accountable for his role in perpetuating a sexist, discriminatory, unethical corporate climate. Here are just a few…

On February 19, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published the blog post that first brought Uber’s dysfunction into the public eye. She described the sexual harassment she experienced in the workplace, and how she was rebuffed when she reported it to HR:

I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.

I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that.

To his credit, Travis Kalanick launched an immediate investigation and held staff meetings where he cried discussing the incident. He might have turned things around.

But the dysfunction was already too deep within the culture, within Travis Kalanick himself, and within his hand-picked team of senior executives. For example, Sr. VP of Engineering Amit Singhal never disclosed a sexual harassment allegation from his time working at Google. When that was discovered, he resigned.

Travis Kalanick was secretly recorded cursing out an Uber driver who complained about working conditions.

After a female employee made a complaint to HR, several top level employees were implicated in an excursion to a Seoul karaoke bar/escort service. Kalanick was there, in addition to Emil Michael, a Sr. VP who, in a separate incident, recommended that Uber hire a team of investigators to dig up dirt on journalists and critics.

Eric Alexander, president of business in Asia, obtained the medical records of a woman who was raped by her Uber driver in hopes of disproving her story and showed the records to Kalanick and Emil Michael.

At a staff meeting, investor David Bonderman interrupted board member Ariana Huffington to make a sexist joke about the female presence on the board of directors.

Twenty more employees were fired as the result of an external investigation that found, among other things, “215 staff complaints going as far back as 2012… 54 were related to discrimination, 47 to sexual harassment, 45 to unprofessional behavior, and 33 to bullying.”

All of that evidence presents a strong case to oust a CEO and start repairing a company culture that’s clearly broken. Susan Fowler’s experience alone should have been reason enough for major action to take place in Uber’s top ranks.

So, what was the straw that broke the Kalanick’s back?

Money, of course.

As Bloomberg reported, the letter to Kalanick from shareholders “blames Kalanick for putting the company at legal risk, citing a trade secrets lawsuit by Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and the use of a software tool called Greyball that’s the subject of a U.S. criminal probe.”

Shareholders didn’t remove Kalanick to protect employees—they did it to protect their investment.

But, as any good HR manager knows, a strong company culture starts at the top. Uber’s board should put people ahead of profits if they want to build a foundation of lasting financial success.

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