Following claims of widespread sexism and sexual harassment, Uber has tasked Arianna Huffington with helping to conduct an investigation into the company's dysfunctional work culture and providing recommendations for fixing it.
As a member of Uber's board, Huffington is the company's highest-ranking woman, which would seem to make her an ideal fit to lead these efforts. There's just one problem: Huffington has a history of fostering or tolerating some of the same workplace issues at the Huffington Post that she is now promising to solve at Uber. In her 10 years running HuffPost, the media startup sported a notoriously toxic atmosphere and a marked lack of diversity, while Huffington herself was accused of covering up an instance of sexual harassment in her inner management circle.
"The goal is not just to turn things around and make things a little better; the goal is to create an absolutely awesome culture where there is zero tolerance for this kind of behavior," Huffington said Tuesday at an all-hands meeting at Uber. "And that means that one of Uber's cultural values that has to do with celebrating top performers and appreciating everything that they contribute, must also include that no brilliant jerks are going to be allowed here.
"Basically -- you can kick butt, but don't be an asshole. And if you are an asshole, then I have Travis' commitment that you are not going to be here long."
"Zero tolerance for this kind of behavior" is not something Huffington was known for at her last company, however. Start with workplace culture. Uber has been accused by whistleblower Susan Fowler of having a "game-of-thrones political war" atmosphere where "it seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor's job."
This cutthroat culture, filled with ruthless competition, was further detailed by the New York Times in a report Wednesday: "A director shouted a homophobic slur at a subordinate during a heated confrontation in a meeting. Another manager threatened to beat an underperforming employee's head in with a baseball bat."
Alpha-male antics were not part of life at HuffPost under its founder, but an air of intimidation and politicking was. Editors and reporters who have published stories that displeased Huffington have faced harsh consequences, including suspensions without pay.
One article by Gawker, titled "Hell Is Working at the Huffington Post," described the publication as being "an essentially miserable place" with a "brutal and toxic" culture.
"HuffPost would rather not fire people, since that often comes with severance, so it torments them into leaving whenever possible," the media gossip site reported. "One editor was barred from all but slideshow management because she accidentally crossed a friend of Arianna's. Others have been stripped of all responsibility, with reporters or staffers they oversee reassigned. Another favored tactic is for people to be suddenly told that they are miserable failures and given stringent story quotas and harsh warnings."
Startups are often high-stress environments, of course. Harder to explain is turning a blind eye to sexual harassment.
At Uber, Fowler alleged, sexual harassment was not only widespread but also covered up by management so as to protect the company's star employees. Fowler says she was solicited by her manager for sex on her first day on that team. The Times' report, meanwhile, describes a scenario where "one Uber manager groped female co-workers' breasts at a company retreat in Las Vegas" (although that manager was swiftly fired).
It's easy to draw a parallel between those incidents and one involving Jimmy Soni, who served as HuffPost's managing editor and Huffington's chief of staff.
In a May 2014 memo, Huffington told the company that Soni would be leaving to open the company's India website. By August, Huffington announced that Soni had left the company. The official reason for his departure was to write a book. But Soni's exit apparently had more to do with an April investigation by AOL lawyers into his treatment of women within the publication's editorial fellows program, "which he allegedly treated as a continually-replenished pool of potential romantic partners," according to another Gawker report (one whose details track with information provided separately to Inc.)
"The matter evidently came to management's attention in early April when two fellows approached their section editor about Soni's entreaties. He had created an atmosphere, they said, in which many felt that if they didn't flirt with Soni, their chances of landing a full-time position would suffer. The section editor notified higher-ups, triggering an investigation."
Beyond the toxic cultures and instances of covering up sexual harassment, there is also the lack of diversity at Uber and the Huffington Post.
Neither company has released a diversity report. Despite this being a common practice in Silicon Valley since 2014, Uber has never released such information, and it only committed to doing so after Fowler's claims. The Huffington Post, meanwhile, has not released this kind of information either, telling the International Business Times in 2015 that "it is against the site's policy to release stats or data about its employees."
About the closest HuffPost has come to a diversity report was a tweeted photo one year ago that appeared to show only white women at a company editor's meeting, for which the publication received much flak. Describing the workforce makeup at HuffPost, one former employee told Inc. that it was "not diverse. Everyone was young and from Princeton or Yale. A few great college drop-outs and a few little Ivies, but that's it." A staff photo taken at a company event in 2010 shows 72 people, of whom only two appear to be of African descent.
Huffington has also not been what you'd call a champion of transparency over the years, either. Despite running a journalistic enterprise that relied on leaks and off-the-record sources for its stories, Huffington has repeatedly tried to catch and punish those responsible for embarrassing leaks. Last year, according to the Washington Post, she reacted strongly after someone leaked an email in which an editor killed a critical story on Uber, citing the partnership between the two companies on Huffington's pro-sleep initiative. Huffington told her managers to find the source of the leak and characterized leakers as "malcontents who would be better off leaving their jobs."
Huffington is not the only one on Uber's investigative team whose qualifications have come into question. Lawyer and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been working with Uber since last year, and Uber Chief Human Resources Officer Lianne Hornsey reports to CEO Travis Kalanick. The whole group is "a team of insiders," as Uber investors Mitch and Freada Kapor put it in a note on Medium.
"To us, this decision is yet another example of Uber's continued unwillingness to be open, transparent, and direct," the investors said, adding: "Arianna Huffington has held a board seat for about a year and is deeply invested in the company weathering the PR crisis."
Asked about the apparent tensions between her record and her role investigating Uber, Huffington's spokesperson at her new company, Thrive Global, provided a statement to Inc., which, at her request, we are printing in full.
All of these links are based on anonymous sources and we won't engage in shadow boxing. It is clear that these pieces all stemmed from former employees with an ax to grind -- as you can see the piece in Gawker that you're referencing was not only based on anonymous sources but did not even have a byline.
As you know, Arianna has been very public about her own journey and the importance of having a thriving workplace -- in fact, putting into place numerous policies and instilling a culture at HuffPost that prioritized well-being and taking time to recharge and giving employees and managers resources to implement healthy work habits into their daily lives -- out-of-office email technology to allow employees to disconnect while on vacation, nap rooms, meditation and breathing classes, free well-being apps like Headspace, free tracking devices such as Jawbone Up Bands, mindful leadership trainings and e-courses, etc.
The phrase "no brilliant jerks allowed" that she mentioned at the Here is an interview going back to 2014 with the Daily News where she mentions this.Uber all-hands was widely known as her operating principle at HuffPost.
Huffington has said that she views it as her role to hold the Uber "leadership team's feet to the fire on this issue." Based on her track record, it's hard to believe it.