Controversies and Public Relations Fails Damage Uber’s Credibility with Users
It has been a very interesting and destructive month for Uber. The transportation network company which was founded in 2009 had been experiencing a wave of criticism over the past couple of years regarding their treatment of drivers and employees. This past month after a series of public incidents and a mass exodus of high level officials, Uber is certainly in a bad state. The boiling point occurred this past week when Uber announced the resignation of COO (chief operating officer) Jeff Jones.
On first inspection the breakup seemed like nothing more than a company revamp however, a statement from Mr. Jones reveals that the departure was more dysfunctional than mutual. ‘I joined Uber to help the company mature and thrive … It is now clear that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced’. The departure becomes increasingly odd as for a month before Mr. Jones left, Uber had been advertising for a new COO to work alongside the CEO Travis Kalanick. A day after Mr. Jones resignation Uber’s vice president for business platforms, Brian McClendon revealed he too was prepared to leave and expected to resign at the end of the month.
Uber will hope this is the last of the employee exodus and although it may end with Mr. Jones and Mr. McClendon, it began back on February 27th when SVP of engineering Amit Singhal left, four days later VP of product growth and self-driving engineer Ed Baker and Charlie Miller also left. Then in the span of a week AI labs director Gary Marcus and Self Driving director Raffi Krikorian also departed, which brings the total to seven.
While all these officials have left the company for various reasons, it is the worrying to see that CEO Travis Kalanick has been given the vote of confidence even after his recent tirades. The most recent incident occurring less than a month ago where Kalanick was caught on camera arguing with an Uber driver about price cuts for the service. While being caught on camera arguing with one of your employees might not be best for business, it was in fact only one of the many controversies Uber has been caught in over the last several weeks.
On February 19th former Uber engineer Susan Fowler made claims on her blog that multiple employees had been subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination. Uber has hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran to look into the allegation. It was revealed that just over 15% of Uber’s engineers, product managers and scientists are women, a figure that is similar to other technology companies (Facebook 17%, Twitter 10% and Google 18%).
However, Uber has long had a reputation for being aggressive and neglectful to modern business practices regarding ethics. The company was born and boomed in an era where workers rights were on the rollback during the global recession, combined with the traditional lack of trade unionistaion within tech new age firms and silicon giants. HR problems and issues and workers rights issues have frequently made headlines with other start-ups like Deliveroo.
To this backdrop Uber is no different. Susan Fowler who joined Uber in November 2015, wrote that on her first day her manager sent messages over their company chat soliciting a sexual relationship. After filing a complaint with HR the company declined to take action citing him as a ‘high performer’ and that it was his ‘first offence’. Fowler documented an account of other issues that occurred during her time with the company and accused HR of lying. The post which was shared widely throughout social media and gained traction, and many on Twitter and Facebook recovered the #DeleteUber movement. The #DeleteUber movement was first established before the turn of the new year and was in direct retaliation to Donald Trump’s travel ban, something that Uber seemed to agree with. Initially the #DeleteUber movement made a large but brief impact on Uber subscribers.
‘Uber has long had a reputation for being aggressive and neglectful to modern business practices regarding ethics’
In January, people accused the company of breaking picket lines and taking advantage of the New York Taxi protest. The company announced it was turning off its surge pricing during the protest in what some people are assuming was an attempt to profit off the backs of Taxi drivers. Due to the loss of face the company appears to recently have rolled back and come out against Trump’s travel ban, stating it is ‘unjust, wrong and against everything we stand for as a company’.
These two controversies may finally be the straw that broke the camel’s back, for a while now users have been opting out of Uber and having been switching over to the competition Lyft. Lyft who has been seen as the friendlier alternative surpassed Uber on the top 10 free apps list on iOS and although there is a #DeleteLyft campaign mainly supported by pro-Trump citizens there is no indication that it will take off like #DeleteUber.
While Lyft certainly doesn’t have the same market value as Uber it is a viable and significant alternative to Uber who have had a mountain of other controversies to go along with the two previously mentioned. Lawsuits have been filed against Uber for lack of background checks and fingerprinting of drivers which has enabled drivers to sexually assault passengers. Uber has settled these cases admitting no wrongdoing and arguing that its screening process is satisfactory. When an Uber driver knocked down and killed a 6 year old girl, Uber claimed it was not at fault as the driver was not carrying a passenger, even though the family said the driver was using the Uber app looking for fares.
Finally, Uber has been accused of abusing users’ privacy and the former company forensic investigator testified that employees regularly used the company’s ‘God View’ to spy on celebrities, politicians and ex-partners.
It will be interesting to see what Uber does in the coming months to combat all the backlash from the high profile failings. To start CEO Travis Kalanick vowed to set up a $3 million legal defence fund for affected drivers of the Trump travel ban. It is certainly a start but, this feels like a drop in the ocean, and it will be a long road back to for Uber who have burnt more bridges than they’ve built.
Conor McGovern Tech Editor