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

A former Uber employee sent ripples through the tech industry on Sunday when she alleged on her personal blog that she’d been sexually harassed while working for the ride-hailing giant, and that the company’s human resources department tried to cover it up.

Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick said in a memo to employees that the blog post was the first he’d heard of the incident, and called in former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder to conduct an independent investigation. Tech workers took to social media to express their shock and disgust that this was happening within their industry.

But two groups weren’t surprised: women who work in tech, and Silicon Valley employment attorneys such as Kelly Dermody. 

“There’s a phenomenon that happens in several industries, namely tech and financial services, where there’s a buffer around the men who are considered ‘high contributors,’ ” said Dermody, who has represented hundreds of women who work in the tech sector in gender discrimination cases. “They get to have a different set of standards, and their business success translates into them being above the law of the companies.”

In Silicon Valley, where companies foster the myth of the wunderkind who, despite his inexperience and immaturity, can build a multibillion-dollar product, that phenomenon is especially pronounced, Dermody said.

“There’s this confusion between innovation and disruption and basic human decency and inclusion,” she said. “People tend to associate disruption with obnoxious, exclusive, fraternity-style culture.”

Although gender, race and age discrimination are known problems in the technology industry, with companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter going to great lengths to publicize efforts to diversify their workforces, the propensity of HR departments to side with “rock star” employees accused of wrongdoing is not often discussed.

But the kind of behavior described in the former Uber employee’s blog post is pervasive in tech, according to employment attorneys, workplace management experts, and women in the sector who in recent days have spoken out on Twitter. 

A survey conducted in 2015 by the Elephant in the Valley found that 60% of women in tech have experienced unwanted sexual advances from a colleague. A 2008 study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that some 50% of women in the industry will leave the workplace at some point in their career because of a hostile work environment. And instances in which companies have given poorly behaved rock star employees a free pass are so common that a group of software developers last year co-authored a guide to stopping abuse in tech communities, in which their top recommendation was “no more rock stars.”

On Twitter, women who worked in tech said their own experiences mirrored that of Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer who authored the blog post.

In her post, Fowler, who joined Uber as a site reliability engineer in November 2015, alleged that her manager at the time had propositioned her. When she brought the issue to Uber’s HR team, she was told that it was the man’s first offense, so “they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”

“Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ … and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part,” she said.

Her post went on to describe how multiple women complained about the same man, and each of them was told it was his “first offense.”

“The situation escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done,” Fowler wrote.

Kalanick on Monday addressed Fowler’s allegations in a memo to employees, saying that the company would bring on Holder to conduct an independent investigation of the incidents detailed in the blog post. Uber board member Arianna Huffington flew to San Francisco on Tuesday to meet with Kalanick to discuss diversity and inclusion at Uber. 

“I view it as my responsibility to hold the leadership team’s feet to the fire on this issue,” Huffington said in a statement.

And as Uber goes into damage control — the company had barely put a recent controversy surrounding Kalanick’s involvement with President Trump’s economic advisory panel behind it when Fowler published her blog post — public relations experts said now is the time for other technology firms to do some soul searching before their own employees publicly air grievances.

“It’s impossible to solve an external PR problem without first solving the internal root problem,” said Jeremy Robinson-Leon, chief operating officer of crisis PR firm Group Gordon.

For many start-ups, HR is an afterthought. Companies focused on rapid growth often don’t hire HR staff until much later, and those that do bring them on early tend to prioritize hiring new employees. For companies that are doubling in size year over year — which is not uncommon in the tech world — understaffed and overworked HR teams often struggle to just keep up. As a result, toxic workplace cultures can develop with little oversight, leading to situations where HR departments take the path of least resistance.  

“That’s always the fallback,” said Bernice Ledbetter, a professor of organizational theory and management at Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management, who noted that when companies grow fast and make a lot of money, it’s a validation of every system they have — even those that might cause harm. 

“They tell themselves that this is how we got here, we’re making a lot of money, everyone is getting bonuses, therefore the ends justify the means,” Ledbetter said, “which never leads to good ethical outcomes.”

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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