Last month, Uber's local marketing team in Lyon, France ran a promotion for a partnership with French website Avions de Chasse, in which Uber users could book cars with attractive female drivers. Uber touted the service with a blog post linking to a site filled with pictures of scantily-clad women and an explanation that "avions de chasse" is a French colloquialism for "an incredibly hot chick."

After BuzzFeed reported on the promotion, the company immediately removed the blog post and issued an apology, claiming that Uber HQ in San Francisco never approved the promotion. Nevertheless the incident has been held up as indicative of the prevailing views of women at the startup.

"On some level, the agency [responsible for the Lyon promotion] thought that their campaign would be acceptable" for a company like Uber, says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and About.com's human resources expert. It's a result, she adds, of the image the company has projected, which "is particularly influenced by the organization's founder, executives, and other managerial staff because of their role in decision-making and strategic direction. It is communicated to employees and customers with every interaction."

Uber spokesperson Kristin Carvell rejected the notion that the company has a sexist culture or that it could be perceived that way. "Women--from executives to engineers to driver partners--have helped build Uber into the company it is today," she tells Inc. "We're proud of the culture we're creating here and the positive impact we're having on communities around the world." 

Carvell also cited Uber's involvement in initiatives with Girls Who Code and International Women's Day. The company declined to give figures on its workplace diversity.

Still, the Avions de Chasse incident was not the only gaffe the company has made recently. In an interview back in March, CEO Travis Kalanick joked to GQ about a women-on-demand service called "Boob-er." "That word should have never left his mouth," Heathfield says. "It devalues the women who use his service and the women who work for his company."

According to HR experts, Uber's mistakes could have long-term consequences, especially in the high-profile Silicon Valley startup's efforts to recruit and retain top female talent. That's not to suggest that such issues are unique to Uber, however. GoDaddy, for example, had to stop using racy ads before it went public because investors believed they could adversely affect the brand. Evan Thornley, founder of online advertising startup LookSmart, got himself into trouble when he said that he hired women because they were "relatively cheap" compared to men. The recent demotion of Tinder's former CEO, Sean Rad, has been linked to the startup's sexual harrassment lawsuit. The list goes on.

Changing the reputation, deserved or not, for what critics have labeled the "asshole culture" prevalent at many startups won't be easy. Here's what company leaders at Uber and other companies need to do. 

1. Media training

Kalanick has admitted he is perhaps not the most eloquent person during interviews. "My [communications] team wishes I took media training. Have you seen some of the things I've said?" he said at this year's TechCrunch Disrupt conference.

Media training would have been a good start, according to Inc. columnist and corporate HR expert Suzanne Lucas. But it's not just Kalanick who lacks a level of corporate decorum that is often expected of high-profile company executives.

"Before, you didn't get to be a CEO of a giant company without decades of corporate management experience, and you were rarely authorized to speak to the press," Lucas says. "In this new economy you have these young CEOs who think they're cracking jokes over dinner with friends when they really should be acting like grown-ups."

But whose job is it to tell their boss to grow up? Internally it can be complicated to address the behavior of the founder or CEO directly. According to Heathfield, the responsibility may fall to external stakeholders. "Their investors, people like Jason Calacanis, should be concerned about this," Heathfield says. "Because eventually it could affect their financials, and that is often the only thing CEOs respond to."

2. Hire more women into leadership positions

Uber may in fact find itself in a competitive disadvantage when it comes to recruiting top female executives to work for the company, according to Lucas. Even if such highly publicized screw-ups aren't in fact representative of the company culture, they still send a message about the brand.

"For career-driven women over 40, they may never even consider applying for a job there because they don't think they fit this 'young babe' criteria Uber thinks is important," she says.

Ironically, accomplished women executives would be exactly the type of hires that could help a startup clean up its reputation, according to Heathfield. "Bringing a woman to the top ... who can form positive relationships with existing executives can greatly influence the culture," she says.

3. Empower current female employees

Heathfield suggests that adding more women at the top of the org chart could serve as a way to launch a women-led mentorship program to engage the company's other female employees. Following Kalanick's comments and the Lyon promotion, she says, current women employees could be feeling that their career at Uber is "tenuous at best." (Heathfield and Lucas, it should be noted, did not speak with any current or former Uber employees prior to being interviewed for this article.)

Mentorship opportunities have helped many other companies retain female employees. McGraw-Hill Education provides a good template: In 2010, Michelle Ferguson, the company's senior vice president of international operations, developed a program that gave women the opportunity to choose their own mentorship goals and then paired them up with a fellow employee for help achieving them.

Published on: Nov 12, 2014