Uber, Get Your Act Together

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Shane Green

By Shane Green

As author of Culture Hacker, and Founder of SGEi, Shane Green designs cultural blueprints, develops tailored learning experiences, and consults on customer experiences for professional sports, automotive, retail and hospitality brands. Shane often speaks to the lessons learned from the aforementioned experiences on his Culture Hacker podcast, and frequently at summits hosted by various Fortune 500 companies.

When it comes to culture, every successful startup needs to have that moment when they realize that how they operate is just as critical as what they do. Uber is not just successful; it is the most valuable startup in history. So, whether Uber likes it or not, the company bears a responsibility to start doing things the right way. It’s safe to say that Uber has not only reached that point, but rather driven right past it.

The Situation at Present

Travis Kalanick has relished the opportunity to stick it to the establishment (who hasn’t?), but there was absolutely no excuse for him doing the same to his employees by promoting a toxic atmosphere and mindset. His recent play (as ex-CEO) to appoint new board members is the latest antic born from a brilliant entrepreneur desperately trying to protect his power and relevancy within the company he built. I get it, he wants to (and should) remain a central part of Uber, but this type of undermining continues to highlight his lack of concern for the brand as a whole. More importantly, his behaviors are negatively affecting the culture of the company, the morale of its employees and they undermine the actions of Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.

In contrast to Kalanick, Khosrowshahi is a well-respected business leader who proved himself during his tenure at Expedia, so expectations are high that Uber finally has an executive who can lead the company beyond all its recent crises. Immediately after his first all-employee meeting, the signals out of Uber connoted a commitment to change.

Internal Strife

The dichotomy of moods within this company right now is staggering. In London, on one hand, Uber drivers are arguing for better treatment and pay from Uber in the London courts, while simultaneously criticizing the transportation regulators who revoked Uber’s license.

This love-hate relationship is also evident at Uber’s corporate offices as well—where employees enjoy the role they play in the company’s success, but hate the fact that they need to do so in such a draining manner.

In both instances, whether with full-time or contracted staff, Travis’s approach has placed the people responsible for the company’s success under extreme stress, and you simply cannot run an organization in that manner. If your people aren’t happy, they will not take care of customers, will look for ways to leave, be less productive, and ultimately hurt the performance of the organization. As Zappos’s CEO, Tony Hsieh, so brilliantly put it, “the brand is just a lagging indicator of culture.” So if Uber is going to keep putting its people under stress, its brand will continue to be damaged and its value will continue to fall.

Next Steps

This need for Uber to get its cultural act together, and the task at hand for Dara, is reflected in a recent conversation I had with Scott Solombrino, President & CEO of Dav El/Boston Coach and co-founder of the National Limousine Association. Solombrino said, “Uber’s treatment and classification of drivers is a moral and legal issue on a global scale. These men and women are ultimately responsible for the company’s success, yet their wages are not livable, and they are not benefitted as stipulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The core of any company’s culture is truly exposed by the way in which it treats its employees, and if the treatment of its drivers serves as an indicator, this core is absolutely rotten.” Simply put, Uber must focus internally first before they can expect to go public.

So, where does Uber go from here?

First, it starts from within, and it needs to start at the top; which means stopping all the power moves in front of your employees and the public and focusing on what really matters: the culture of your company.

Next, the company should continue to invest in, and build out a concerted human resources team with the expertise, empowerment and courage to be a haven for employee concerns, and the facilitator of the new Uber culture. One of the most damaging revelations to come out of Susan Fowler’s claims regarding sexual harassment is that Uber human resources did not provide any protection or safety for herself or other employees when things went wrong. Liane Hornsey, a former Google executive, was hired by Uber back in January as its HR chief to begin the process of rebuilding the Uber HR team and reshaping its company culture. She must be provided the resources and ability to grow her team and discipline.

Following HR’s revamp, Uber must implement all of the suggestions from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s report. Some of Holder’s most important suggestions focused on company values that define how people should act and interact with others, and how decisions should be made.

The company also needs to drastically narrow its focuses and prioritize them during this transition. The key is to assign four core values, and for each of those values, identify two or three behaviors that are observable and measurable. Values cannot be just some philosophical tenets that tick the box for improving corporate culture. For this shift to be real, Uber must call out the behaviors it expects from everyone, and then be willing to recognize those individuals who embrace them.

A Bright Future?

The beautiful thing is, change doesn’t mean that Uber has to lose its hard-charging, entrepreneurial edge. Far from it, as other successful companies like Google, Southwest Airlines, Zappos, and Airbnb have shown us, you can disrupt your industry without disrupting your employee base.

Once a cultural base is established, it’ll be time for Uber to rework its selection process and think about hiring people who will properly convey its refreshed image. Next, it must revamp the orientation and onboarding process so a proper immersion of the brand, values and customers is delivered.

Many cultural revolutions make the mistake of focusing on employees when, in fact, this is the group that evolves most easily. For Uber, board members, executives and managers must show the change they expect of others; or they should be replaced … plain and simple.

In the end, there is too much at stake for Uber not to get its act together. Investors eager for the company’s initial public offering will quickly look to get back the value that has been lost over the past six months; and while this may seem best done by focusing on its drivers and processes, don’t forget that it also means Uber starting to treat its brand and people with more respect.

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