Uber, trying to leave troubles behind, backs its CEO and pledges more diversity efforts

After a spate of turbulence, ride-hailing giant Uber made a point Tuesday of reaffirming its loyalty to Chief Executive Travis Kalanick and its commitment to having an inclusive workplace.

“It’s clear both Uber and the whole ride-sharing industry would not be where we are today without Travis,” Uber board member Arianna Huffington told reporters during a conference call. She was responding to a question about whether Uber's board of directors would consider asking Kalanick to step down from his post, given the bumpy road down which he has led the San Francisco-based company.

“The board has complete confidence in Travis. He started as a scrappy entrepreneur and now he has to bring about changes in himself,” she said. “I’m personally a big believer in leaders and companies being allowed to evolve."

Uber’s chief human resources officer, Liane Hornsey, was also on the call and said part of the company’s cultural turnaround strategy included releasing its diversity numbers later this month, launching unconscious bias training programs for employees, offering interview training for women and updating 1,500 job descriptions to make sure they’re free from unconscious bias.

Hornsey also said the company is continuing its search for a chief operating officer.

Uber has been having a tumultuous 2017. Its troubles have included executive departures, backlash over Kalanick’s role advising President Trump, sexual harassment allegations, a video showing Kalanick lashing out at a driver, a lawsuit by Google spinoff Waymo, and the revelation of a secret program that mined user data in an effort to thwart regulators.

Read more: Uber's self-inflicted controversies come at a price: public loyalty »

President quits

Uber’s president resigned in mid-March after just six months on the job.

The company didn’t provide public comment explaining Jeff Jones’ departure. But the tech blog Recode, which first reported his resignation, said Kalanick told employees that Jones decided to resign after Kalanick announced his intention to hire a chief operating officer earlier in the month.

Jones, a former chief marketing officer at Target Corp., told Recode that his values didn't align with Uber's.

"The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business," he said in a statement.

Read more: Uber president quits after six months on the job »

Executive search

In March, a week after saying he would seek leadership help, Kalanick announced he had begun the search for a chief operating officer — “a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey.”

Secret program

In early March it was revealed that Uber had been wielding a secret weapon to thwart authorities trying to curtail or shut down its ride-hailing service.

The program included a feature nicknamed “Greyball” that identified regulators who were posing as riders while trying to collect possible evidence that Uber's service was breaking local laws governing taxis, the New York Times reported.

To stymie those efforts, Uber served up a fake version of its app to make it appear the undercover regulators were summoning a car, only to have the ride canceled. The San Francisco company mined the data that it collects through its real app to pinpoint the undercover agents.

Uber acknowledged it has used Greyball to counter regulators working with the company's opponents to entrap its drivers, saying Greyball was part of a broader program it developed to protect itself and its drivers from “fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service.”

Less than a week after Greyball was revealed, Uber announced that it would kill the feature.

Read more: Secret 'Greyball' program shows just how far Uber will go to get its way »

CEO is seen berating a driver

A dashcam video, released by Bloomberg News in late February, showed Kalanick arguing with Uber driver Fawzi Kamel over Uber’s fares, which Kamel complained were too low.

Toward the end of their exchange, the video showed Kalanick losing his temper. “You know what? Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own ...,” he says, using a vulgarity. “They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!”

After the video became public, Kalanick issued an apology to all employees, saying he was ashamed. “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up,” the 40-year-old executive said. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”

Uber CEO pledges to 'grow up' after video shows him lashing out at a driver »

Executive’s abrupt exit

Uber’s senior vice president of engineering reportedly was asked to leave in late February, just five weeks after Uber announced his hiring.

Kalanick sought Amit Singhal’s resignation after learning that Singhal had failed to disclose that there was a sexual harassment claim against him at his previous job at Google, Recode reported. Singhal said in a statement that he did not condone nor had he ever committed harassment and that the decision to leave Google was his own.

Read more: Uber executive leaves after failing to disclose sex harassment allegation »

Waymo lawsuit

Waymo — a self-driving car project owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. — sued Uber in February, alleging theft of trade secrets. That’s a big deal, since Uber has pegged its future to self-driving vehicles.

The Waymo suit alleges that former Waymo employee Anthony Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary files shortly before his resignation in January 2016. He went on to found self-driving truck start-up Otto, which was acquired by Uber in August for $680 million. Levandowski now heads Uber’s self-driving car division.

Waymo alleges Otto is using its proprietary technology. In addition to punitive damages, Waymo is expected to soon seek a preliminary injunction against Uber to stop the company from continuing development on self-driving cars.

Uber said it had “reviewed Waymo’s claims and determined them to be a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor, and we look forward to vigorously defending against them in court. In the meantime, we will continue our hard work to bring self-driving benefits to the world.”

Read more: Google spinoff Waymo accuses Uber of self-driving car theft »

Sexual harassment allegation

Former Uber employee Susan J. Fowler sent ripples through the tech industry in February when she alleged on her personal blog that she had been sexually harassed while working for the company, that other female engineers had reported similar problems — some involving the same manager — and that Uber’s human resources department engaged in a systemic cover-up.

Kalanick said in a memo to employees that the blog post was the first he’d heard of the incident. The company called in former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder to conduct an independent investigation.

Read more: Uber sexual harassment allegations are a warning for the tech industry and its 'rock star' culture »

Trump-related backlash

Some 200,000 users deleted the Uber app in late January to protest Kalanick’s perceived cooperation with the Trump administration, shortly after Trump issued an executive order banning travelers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The boycott — along with the hashtag #DeleteUber — hit the company after it advertised that it was operating at New York’s Kennedy International Airport during a taxi strike protesting the executive order. Protesters also were upset that Kalanick was a member of a panel advising Trump on economic issues.

Kalanick soon promised that Uber would create a $3-million legal defense fund to help drivers affected by the travel ban. Within days, he quit the president’s advisory panel and slammed the travel ban in a memo to staffers.

Read more: Travis Kalanick quits Trump’s advisory council; Elon Musk will stay »

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

Twitter: @AgrawalNina

The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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UPDATES:

March 21, 3:50 p.m.: This article was updated with information and quotes from a conference call.

This article was originally published March 20 at 11:30 a.m.

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