Why Uber Probably Won’t Change its Ways — But it’s Doomed if it Doesn’t

This kind of advertising only works when people believe it’s a good company attacking an evil company.

Today I read this article from Susan J. Fowler, sharing her experience working at Uber. It’s a terribly unfortunate story filled with sexism and sexual harassment, and paints a damning picture of Uber’s culture.

Unfortunately, this story seems to mostly confirm what people already know: Uber has a toxic, cut-throat culture.

In my work, I spend my days studying the sociological side of business, and talking to businesses about how to build community. So I want to give Uber some advice because I think they’re on a very dangerous path.

Why People Contribute to Communities

One question I get all the time is, “can all businesses build community?” My answer is yes, because I believe that all businesses *are* communities. They’re groups of people with a shared sense of identity and belonging.

That said, not all communities are alike. There are healthy, connected, happy communities and there are communities that are disconnected and unhappy. This applies to all communities, including nations, religions and tribes. Some are happy and thriving. Some are sad, or oppressed. It’s up to the leadership.

The goals of community leadership are always the same: increase member loyalty and productivity.

There are three ways to motivate people to remain loyal, and to be a productive contributor:

  1. Purpose — give people an opportunity to work on something greater than themselves
  2. Profit — give people money
  3. Power — give people authority and reputation

For employees, Uber can provide all three in spades right now. For drivers, #2 seems to have gotten them this far.

But what they don’t have is something that could one day bring it all down: an authentic set of values that they live by.

Values are Valuable

A company’s set of values is different from its purpose. Uber’s purpose is to make transportation as reliable as running water. That’s admirable. But values aren’t about why you’re building your company, it’s about how you make decisions and how you expect people in your community to conduct themselves.

If you go to the uber site and look for their values, you’ll come up short. They don’t exist. And it’s not surprising that in their “our story” page, the messaging is around making money (motivation #2).

Need money? Contribute to the Uber community!

Actually, Uber does have values. We all have them whether or not we write them down. They exist in our minds (individually) and culture (collectively), and show up in our actions. Uber hasn’t written their values down, probably because “Greed, Growth and Gender discrimination” doesn’t paint a rosy picture for potential hires.

The sad truth is, right now they don’t need to write them down. In fact it’s better they don’t, so that their community members don’t have to hold them accountable. Because when you can provide enough purpose, profit, and power, it turns out people are willing to realign, or set aside, their values.

We see this throughout human history in government and war. We’re seeing it now on the political stage. Good people are making decisions that violate their values in order to keep, or increase, their power.

Eventually, the Tides Will Turn

A business, or nation, can last for a long time using purpose, power and profit. But if values aren’t aligned with the members of the community, eventually things will come to a head.

This happens because, as described above, your values show themselves in your decisions, actions and reactions. Eventually, it adds up and your true colors show themselves. When those true colors show up, you start to lose motivation #3: power. In fact, you actually become a risk to the members’ power. They start to worry that sticking with your company will do their reputation more harm than good.

Employees start leaving. Some even speak out publicly against the company, either because they were personally affected by the violation of values, or because they can get more reputation from calling out the violations. Or both.

We’ve seen many examples already of actions by members of the Uber leadership and community that show their true values. Cancelling rides with a competitor. Drivers attacking passengers. Now female employees being sexually harassed.

The #deleteuber trend resulted in hundreds of thousands of cancellations. I’ve seen good arguments for why this was actually NOT an example of Uber doing something wrong — a lot of people misconstrued what happened. But they were all too eager to jump on an anti-Uber bandwagon. Uber’s bed was already made.

Wrong or right, #deleteuber was more than a knee jerk response. It’s become the language of the Uber resistance as now it’s being used again in response to Susan’s post.

Uber… listen, you’re working on some big, world-changing stuff. You have some of the smartest people in the world working for you. You have the ear of world leaders. We all want you to do better.

You can continue down this path. You don’t have to change. God knows you have the money to motivate people to contribute for a couple decades. Even with stories like Susan’s, a lot of people will probably set aside their values in order to get a good salary, improve their reputation and work on something with a big, ambitious purpose.

But I’m telling you, the tides will turn.

If you don’t change your culture, these bad actions by your employees and drivers won’t stop. More people will get hurt. And your community, and the world, will trust you less and less.

Eventually you’ll hit a tipping point and you won’t be able to provide people with power any more. It will become taboo to use Uber. They’ll lose faith in you and your purpose. Eventually (and yes I know you’ve raised a ton of cash), this will put you in a difficult financial position. You’ll have to pay more and more to keep employees and customers loyal. People will be willing to pay an extra couple bucks for your competitors if it helps them sleep at night.

You can’t provide transportation as reliable as running water if the water is tainted. It’s time to clean it up.

And I don’t mean hiring a private investigator to “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.” That’s not a solution.

You have to change the water source: your culture. Everything stems from there. You need to make a public, well defined commitment to a new set of values across your entire organization, and then practice those values consistently over time.

When David Sacks took over as CEO of Zenefits after their huge compliance and sex in stairwell scandals, his focus was on their values. He said in a letter to employees, “Our culture and tone have been inappropriate for a highly regulated company. I believe a new set of values are necessary to take us to the next level. In order to be a great company, integrity must be at the core of what we do.”

It may be too late for Zenefits. Maybe if they responded sooner they would be in a better position. But you’re not there yet Uber. You can change your ways, even if you don’t feel like you have to just yet.

I hope you do because I’ve already been avoiding using Uber whenever possible, because of your culture. After reading about Susan’s experience, I’m am no longer interested in participating in your community. Your values do not align with mine. So I’m done using Uber. I’ll be back when you’ve made a true, authentic attempt to redefine your values.

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