Emotional Uber CEO promises to revamp its corporate culture

A former female engineer at Uber made explosive claims of sexual harassment at the company — and CEO Travis Kalanick responded to the public embarrassment by hiring no less than a former US Attorney General to investigate.

Former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler wrote an explosive blog post over the weekend that startled many Uber users with a description of pervasive sexual harassment.

The widely-shared post this weekend included the detail that the company issued leather jackets to men on the team, but left out women because they could not get a comparable group discount

Fowler also alleged that her former manager described his “open relationship” with his girlfriend in an attempt to solicit a sexual relationship with her, and added that the company’s human resources team declined to take action because the manager was a “high performer.” Fowler said the company’s human resources representative told her that it was his “first offense” — a claim she later discovered was false after speaking with other female employees who said the same manager had also propositioned them.

With no action taken against her manager, Fowler was given a choice: either leave the team, or stay and possibly get a negative performance review from her manager, who was aware of her complaint.

The blog post generated a range of responses from Silicon Valley and the tech community, nearly universally critical of Uber.

Kalanick responded immediately on Twitter to Fowler’s post, saying, “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.I’ve instructed our [chief human resources officer Liane Hornsey] to conduct an urgent investigation. There can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber.”

Later, Kalanick said in a memo that former US Attorney General Eric Holder will examine the ex-employee’s claims, and “diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly.”

Kalanick said Uber’s technology teams have consistently included about 15% women. Facebook is at 17%, Google at 19%, and Twitter is at 15%. He said the company would publish a diversity report in coming months.

Arianna Huffington, a board member of Uber, told staff on Tuesday that the company was trying to fix its mistakes. “Travis spoke very honestly about the mistakes he’s made — and about how he wants to take the events of the last 48-hours to build a better Uber. It was great to see employees holding managers accountable. I also view it as my responsibility to hold the leadership team’s feet to the fire on this issue. … Change doesn’t usually happen without a catalyst. I hope that by taking the time to understand what’s gone wrong and fixing it we can not only make Uber better but also contribute to improvements for women across the industry.”

Holder, now a partner at law firm Covington & Burling, is making a name for himself as a fixer for discrimination problems at Silicon Valley companies. He previously crafted an anti-discrimination policy for Airbnb, another billion-dollar startup that took a hit to its reputation after Harvard Business School researchers found that guests with “distinctively African-American” names had trouble getting approved for places to stay on the platform.

The highly circulated post intensified criticism of the company. Uber has had a rough month, trying to rebound from a damaging “Delete Uber” campaign by customers displeased with the CEO’s political involvement.

Fowler’s claims have become part of a larger ongoing conversation about the treatment of female employees — especially in the Silicon Valley tech community.

Ellen Pao, a former employee at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who lost a gender discrimination lawsuit against the company in 2015 and has become a voice supporting anti-discrimination measures in the tech world. Pao responded to the Uber controversy on Twitter by saying, “people do talk privately. Too many heartbreaking stories. I hope all CEOs are paying attention: it is probably at your startup too.”