After reading the account published yesterday by Susan Fowler about the sexual harassment she confronted at Uber, I feel disturbed, distressed and angry. Fowler, an accomplished computer scientist, worked for one year in the engineering department at Uber, and from literally her first day on the job found herself propositioned and systematically discriminated against, and found her opportunities for advancement--or even transfer--obstructed due to her gender.
But the most disturbing part of Fowler's story is the number of times she approached her HR representatives - equipped with full documentation--about these episodes, and her concerns remained unaddressed. For example, she wrote:
On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat...It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.
I am mystified how in a Silicon Valley engineering department--where gender diversity is clearly a priority and a badge of pride - it appears that mid-level management and human resources somehow lined up to silence and punish Fowler when she raised issues, instead of supporting her and weeding them out. These actions protected the manager, but left Uber exposed to a potential PR crisis, lost revenue (and the return of the #deleteuber hashtag) not to mention a lawsuit.
So what are the takeaways for CEO's and managers from this fiasco?
1. Make it crystal clear that harassment of any kind, including sexual, will not be tolerated.
According to Fowler, the HR contacts that she initially approached viewed this situation as "clearly sexual harassment" but a "first-time offense" and so the perpetrator was disciplined instead of outright fired. Not only was this course of action a clear affront to Fowler, but it also was a recipe for ongoing disaster for Uber. If the company had taken clear and decisive action to fire the manager, it would have been a clear signal throughout the company that this kind of behavior - in this case sexual propositioning of your subordinates (aka sexual harassment at its most fundamental)--is not to be tolerated.
Instead, the lack of action in response to this instance in effect told the company, "Don't worry. Sexual harassment is not that big a deal at Uber."
2. Make it crystal clear that you--as CEO--want to be first to know when sexual harassment transpires.
When Fowler's blog post went live yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded by saying that it was the first time he had been made aware of the situation, and that he had instructed his company's new Chief Human Resources Officer "to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations."
"Don't Ask Don't Tell" doesn't work when it comes to incidents of sexual harassment--even alleged--in your organization. Make it clear that you want to be first to know when they surface, and you are likely to avoid a great deal of pain and embarrassment don't the line.
3. When there is rapid attrition among women in a department, find out why--and hold the leaders of that department accountable.
One of the many disturbing reports in Fowler's account was this:
When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%.
This data point alone should have been a pretty significant red flag about the state of affairs within this department. As CEO, task your HR department with understanding gender, racial and other diversity components of various departments. Determine ways to reward management for growing diversity, but when you see things going the wrong way, ask tough questions--both of managers and those within the department--and take action.
4. Embrace transparency.
By choosing to take her difficult story public, Fowler was incredibly brave. She exposed herself to much scrutiny, and all the fun that goes with it (Internet trollling, anyone?)--much like Ellen Pao's infamous experience a few years ago.
One of the main reasons that I co-founded Fairygodboss was to allow women an anonymous platform through which to share their personal experiences at work--both positive and negative--with each other and their employers.
The world is full of deterrents to an employee taking a terrible experience like this public. But new outlets including Fairygodboss, Glassdoor, Indeed and Comparably--as well as social media--give those employees a voice.
I can appreciate how leadership may be concerned that user review sites are dense with employees venting their bad experiences, and in many cases that may be true. (It is worth noting at Fairygodboss we have a fairly rigorous review process meant to limit reviews that are merely venting and not constructive.)
But as many progressive companies including Accenture have observed, "Earning digital trust means leaders must bear scrutiny. Ratings matter!"
One of the main themes we heard when we were doing original research to launch Fairygodboss was that often, senior leadership is unaware of what's happening deeper in the ranks. Thanks to added transparency created by digital tools, that no longer needs to be true. Every CEO should be eager and willing to hear what employees have to say anonymously about his or her organization. Otherwise, bad situations can come to a boil and create a public relations crisis like the one Uber is facing today.