Uber CEO Launches An ‘Urgent Investigation’ Into Workplace Harassment Following Female Engineer’s Blog Post

Susan Fowler recounted a 'slightly horrifying' experience

Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO, has launched an investigation into Susan Fowler's allegations. Getty Images
Headshot of Kristina Monllos

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has instructed chief human resources officer Liane Hornsey to conduct an “urgent investigation” after reading a former engineer’s account of harassment during her time at the ride share company.

In a post on her personal site, onetime Uber SRE (site reliability engineer) Susan Fowler detailed alleged incidents of sexual harassment and issues with the company’s human resources team when she tried to report the treatment, as well as other supposed incidents of gender bias at the company.

UPDATE:  On Monday, Kalanick sent a note to Uber employees detailing how the company would handle the investigation. Below appears the note, which was provided to Adweek by Uber’s media team:

It’s been a tough 24 hours. I know the company is hurting, and understand everyone has been waiting for more information on where things stand and what actions we are going to take.

First, Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General under President Obama, and Tammy Albarran—both partners at the leading law firm Covington & Burling—will conduct an independent review into the specific issues relating to the workplace environment raised by Susan Fowler, as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly. Joining them will be Arianna 
Huffington, who sits on Uber’s board, Liane Hornsey, our recently hired Chief Human Resources Officer, and Angela Padilla, our Associate General Counsel. I expect them to conduct this review in short order.

Second, Arianna is flying out to join me and Liane at our all hands meeting tomorrow to discuss what’s happened and next steps. Arianna and Liane will also be doing smaller group and one-on-one listening sessions to get your feedback directly.  

Third, there have been many questions about the gender diversity of Uber’s technology teams. If you look across our engineering, product management, and scientist roles, 15.1 [percent] of employees are women and this has not changed substantively in the last year. As points of reference, Facebook is at 17 [percent], Google at 18 [percent] and Twitter is at 10 [percent]. Liane and I will be working to publish a broader diversity report for the company in the coming months.

I believe in creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do. Every Uber employee should be proud of the culture we have and what we will build together over time. What is driving me through all this is a determination that we take what’s happened as an opportunity to heal wounds of the past and set a new standard for justice in the workplace. It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice. 

That memo came on the heels of an embarrassing weekend for Uber. On Sunday, Kalanick in a statement provided to Adweek, said, “I have just read Susan Fowler’s blog. What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in. It’s the first time this has come to my attention so I have instructed Liane Hornsey our new Chief Human Resources Officer to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations.”

Kalanick continued: “We seek to make Uber a just workplace for everyone and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber—and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.”

“On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat,” wrote Fowler. “He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with.”

She continued: “It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.”

When Fowler reported the behavior she “was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”

Reporting the incident allegedly had a negative impact on her ability to move up in the company, according to Fowler’s report. And she wasn’t alone: During her time at the company, Fowler claims to have spoken with other female engineers who told her they had experienced similar treatment.

Other highlights from Fowler’s account:

  • “Over the next few months, I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company. It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being ‘his first offense,’ and it certainly wasn’t his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his ‘first offense.’ The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.”
  • “When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25 [percent] women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng [sic] organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6 [percent]. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers. … On my last day at Uber, I calculated the percentage of women who were still in the org. Out of over 150 engineers in the SRE teams, only 3 [percent] were women.”

In summarizing another incident, Fowler wrote that the director of Uber’s engineering organization promised to order leather jackets for all SRE team members but later declined to do so for the group’s approximately six women, attributing the decision to the fact that the company got a discount for the men’s jackets since it ordered more than 120 of them. According to Fowler’s account, the director responded to her subsequent complaint by “saying that if we women really wanted equality, then we should realize we were getting equality by not getting the leather jackets.” She continued, “We were told that if we wanted leather jackets, we women needed to find jackets that were the same price as the bulk-order price of the men’s jackets.”

Fowler did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

@KristinaMonllos kristina.monllos@adweek.com Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.