Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture

These two articles from The New York Times serve to illustrate how a sophomoric male culture propels some of the biggest companies in the tech industry first to unbelievable success, then possibly to their own destruction.

By MIKE ISAAC, February 22, 2017,  for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — When new employees join Uber, they are asked to subscribe to 14 core company values, including making bold bets, being “obsessed” with the customer, and “always be hustlin’.” The ride-hailing service particularly emphasizes “meritocracy,” the idea that the best and brightest will rise to the top based on their efforts, even if it means stepping on toes to get there.

Those values have helped propel Uber to one of Silicon Valley’s biggest success stories. The company is valued at close to $70 billion by private investors and now operates in more than 70 countries.

Yet the focus on pushing for the best result has also fueled what current and former Uber employees describe as a Hobbesian environment at the company, in which workers are sometimes pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers.

Interviews with more than 30 current and former Uber employees, as well as reviews of internal emails, chat logs and tape-recorded meetings, paint a picture of an often unrestrained workplace culture. Among the most egregious accusations from employees, who either witnessed or were subject to incidents and who asked to remain anonymous because of confidentiality agreements and fear of retaliation: One Uber manager groped female co-workers’ breasts at a company retreat in Las Vegas. 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.

Until this week, this culture was only whispered about in Silicon Valley. Then on Sunday, Susan Fowler, an engineer who left Uber in December, published a blog post about her time at the company. She detailed a history of discrimination and sexual harassment by her managers, which she said was shrugged off by Uber’s human resources department. Ms. Fowler said the culture was stoked — and even fostered — by those at the top of the company. . . .

Travis Kalanick

As chief executive, Mr. Kalanick has long set the tone for Uber. Under him, Uber has taken a pugnacious approach to business, flouting local laws and criticizing competitors in a race to expand as quickly as possible. Mr. Kalanick, 40, has made pointed displays of ego: In a GQ article in 2014, he referred to Uber as “Boob-er” because of how the company helped him attract women. . . .

The Bro Culture in Tech Land

In this article a week later in The New York Times, the writer explores how the bro culture, so familiar in the world of venture capital, has also permeated many businesses in Silicon Valley, creating a toxic work environment, particularly for women.

Scene from “The Wolf of Wall Street” 

By DAN LYONS, April 1, 2017, for The New YorkTimes

The tech industry has a problem with “bro culture.” People have been complaining about it for years. Yet nobody has done much to fix it. . . .

Look at Uber, the ride-hailing start-up. It’s the biggest tech unicorn in the world, with a valuation of $69 billion. Not long ago Uber seemed invincible. Now it’s in free fall, and top executives have fled. The company’s woes spring entirely from its toxic bro culture, created by its chief executive, Travis Kalanick.

What is bro culture? Basically, a world that favors young men at the expense of everyone else. A “bro co.” has a “bro” C.E.O., or C.E.-Bro, usually a young man who has little work experience but is good-looking, cocky and slightly amoral — a hustler. Instead of being forced by investors to surround himself with seasoned executives, he is left to make decisions on his own.

The bro C.E.O. does what you’d expect an immature young man to do when you give him lots of money and surround him with fawning admirers — he creates a culture built on reckless spending and excessive partying, where bad behavior is not just tolerated but even encouraged. He creates the kind of company in which going to an escort bar with your colleagues, as Mr. Kalanick did in South Korea in 2014, according to recent reports, seems like a good idea. (The visit led, understandably, to a complaint to the personnel department.)

Could Travis Kalanick have served as the model for Leonard di Caprio’s role in “The Wolf of Wall Street?” There is quite a similarity!

Bro cos. become corporate frat houses, where employees are chosen like pledges, based on “culture fit.” Women get hired, but they rarely get promoted and sometimes complain of being harassed. Minorities and older workers are excluded.

Bro culture also values speedy growth over sustainable profits, and encourages cutting corners, ignoring regulations and doing whatever it takes to win.

. . . [T]he board has full confidence in Mr. Kalanick. But should it? He’s a college dropout with a spotty track record and a reputation for pugnacity. His record at Uber includes racking up enormous losses — reportedly $5 billion over the last two years. Despite this, the bluest blue-chip investors (including Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) have invested a total of $16 billion in Uber.

Bro C.E.O.s are better at raising money than making money. So why do venture capitalists keep investing in them? It may be because many of the venture capitalists are bros as well.

Venture capitalists used to be tech engineers who had made a bundle, retired early and took up investing in start-ups as a kind of white-shoe hobby. The new breed are competitive alpha males who previously might have gone to work as bond traders. At the same time, there are fewer women. In 1999, 10 percent of investing partners at venture capital companies were women. By 2014 the number had declined to 6 percent, according to the Diana Project at Babson College. This is probably one reason that, despite many studies showing that women run companies better than men, none of the 15 biggest tech “unicorns” — start-ups worth more than $1 billion — has a female chief executive.

Leonardo di Caprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Uber’s collapse should not come as a surprise but it does offer a lesson: Toxic workplace culture and rotten financial performance go hand-in-hand. It’s possible for a boorish jerk to run a successful company, but jerks do best when surrounded by non-jerks, and bros do best when they hire seasoned executives to help them. Without “adult supervision” and institutional restraints, the C.E.-Bro’s vices end up infecting the culture of the workplaces they control.

This poisonous state of affairs will get fixed only when investors start getting hurt. A crash at Uber, the most high profile tech start-up in the world, could provide the jolt that finally brings the tech industry back to its senses.

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