Uber is in the Headlines. Yes, Again.
A new Uber scandal broke out on Friday, March 3rd. Uber is no stranger to disruption and controversy. So what’s new?
Uber evades authorities
Uber’s engineers developed a stealth software tool dubbed “Greyball,” which essentially tricks authorities into seeing fake Uber cars. Here’s how it works:
- In cities where UberX is banned by law, Uber engineers detect and circumvent local authorities who are trying to use the app to hail drivers, collective evidence against Uber, and impound vehicles.
- Unbeknown to the authorities, they are being tracked and identified by their personally identifiable information such as their emails, credit card numbers, and social media accounts.
- Once a law enforcement officer is discovered, the interface changes so that the cars the officer sees on a map are not actual vehicles. They are being ghosted — the company populates its app with fake cars to evade capture.
- What’s more, if an undercover officer happens to connect with an unsuspecting driver, Uber would call that driver and have them cancel the ride so they could avoid being cited or impounded. It was the functional equivalent of trying to hail an Uber from USC late at night — no matter how hard you try, it’s just not going to happen.
Uber used these clandestine methods to evade authorities in major cities like Boston, Paris, and Las Vegas, as well as cities all over the world. Mr. Robot would be proud.
What’s interesting is that the program was cleared by Uber’s legal team. However, it was Uber’s VP of product and growth that resigned the other day. Regardless, Uber needs a publicist on par with Olivia Pope (rumor has it Judy Smith is available).
While these issues get debated, let’s look at the history of Uber’s scandals.
A Short History of Uber’s Scandals
Because Medium publishes the time it takes the average reader to read articles, this list will be relatively short.
Let’s briefly review Uber’s scandals over the years:
- “Boob-Er” — February 27, 2014
Described as a “bro-y alpha nerd,” by GQ, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick makes an off color joke about the prospects of picking up on women through use of his ride-hailing app: “Yeah, we call that Boob-er.”
- #ShaveTheStashe — August 11, 2014
Lyft uncovered evidence that Uber employees ordered and cancelled about 5,560 rides over a several month period, cutting into Lyft’s profits and driver availability. One perpetrator allegedly went as far as to create 14 different fake accounts in order to perform 680 cancellations. This is not the first time Uber has been accused of falsely flagging competitor drivers.
- “God View”— October 3, 2014
- “Surge Pricing”— December 24, 2014
At the end of a long year, Uber found itself mired in another controversy. It offered sincerest apologies and gave free rides to users in Sydney, Australia, where its algorithm increased prices up to four times their normal rate during a hostage situation that drove up demand. Uber struck an agreement with New York (and applied it nationwide) to cap its “surge pricing” during emergencies. The app doesn’t “surge” anymore but it still prices according to demand, and criticism for the way Uber handles emergencies.
But those scandals didn’t impact Uber’s image that much. On August 26, 2015, Business Insider released the “Silicon Valley 100”: The “Who’s Who of the most prominent, and coolest, people in Silicon Valley.” The individuals on that list:
Fast forward to 2016, and the cracks in the foundation start to surface:
- “Uber Settles Class Actions” — April 22, 2016
Uber settled two class action employment lawsuits for $100 million, affecting 385,000 drivers in California and Massachusetts. The lawsuits were closely watched as the suits had the potential to derail the business model of many startups, not just Silicon Valley. Drivers remain contractors.
- “Uber Tests Autopilot” — December 14, 2016
The company dispatched a fleet of self-driving cars to San Francisco but it was short-lived. Uber refused to apply for a DMV permit, arguing its autos didn’t need to meet California DMV’s definition of “autonomous vehicles.” On the very first day of testing, a car was caught running a red light. The DMV threatened to close the program. Uber moved the self-driving cars to Arizona and last week promised it will apply for the $150 California permit.
For Uber, 2017 is shaping out to be much more scandalous than 2014. Here are just some of the headlines to refresh your recollection:
- #DeleteUber: Travis Leaves Trump — February 2, 2017
- Woman Accuses Uber of Sexual Harassment— February 19, 2017
- Google’s Waymo Sues Uber — February 23, 2017
- Uber’s CEO Gets Into Trouble over Video— March 1, 2017
- Uber to Consider Changing Employee Stock Plan — March 3, 2017
- Uber Evades Authorities, VP resigns — March 3, 2017
Some Words of Advice
The Information reports today that Travis is seeking a second-in-command. He says said he needs “leadership help.” One recommendation might be to redefine Uber’s mission and purpose. The second might be to make sure employees know the values and mission of the company. The third is to realize you’re a team and not any one individual. Don’t make blanket statements like this one, because you’re not helping the situation, you are only confusing and demoralizing your workers:
A female employee at Uber complained about sexual harassment from her supervisor. HR told her they could not fire him since he was a high achiever and only gave him a stern warning since this was his first offense. She was told there would be no consideration for retaliation if her supervisor gave her negative marks in the future. How could you ever trust a company like that?
Travis misses the point — the problem is not this particular individual (who can always be fired). The overwhelming problem is how the company handled the situation and the corporate culture that allowed it. In fact, this is how formerly-great organizations devolve and decay every day. They begin to treat their systemic cultural problems as individual-performance problems, missing the forest for the trees. They can’t or won’t look at their own broken culture, so they hire new managers, move some around and reorganize departments and write new goals and publish them, all to no avail.
Mark Zuckerberg does stand up meetings almost every Friday at Facebook. He is open, honest and transparent. He leads by example, encourages his team to contribute, recognizes employee achievements, and shares company secrets. Almost none of the information leaks from these meetings. Why? Because trust is valued (in legal mechanisms and reinforced through culture). But when your company culture breaks down, trust is the first thing that goes.
As a great mind once said:
No company has a culture; every company is a culture.
Travis Kalanick needs to lead. Stop reacting. Refine purpose and live it.