On Uber, Gardens, and Why Corporate Culture Matters

I’m mad this morning. I just read an article by a woman who spent a year at Uber facing sexual harassment. She had great courage to bring it up with HR multiple times, saw nothing was done as the situation got worse with a repeat offender, and finally quit to join a less offensive company. This is not an isolated incident. Uber has a corporate culture which enables this kind of behavior.

Corporate culture can be a confusing term. It could mean standing behind the company mission statement. It could refer to the sort of events and activities the company does for it’s employees. For me the word corporate culture means “what behavior and attitudes does the company expect from it’s employees”. This culture isn’t just what’s officially written the HR handbook. It’s also who you hire and how current employees treat the new ones. And therefore the culture is set by the founders and senior management.

When I started using ride sharing companies a few years ago I specifically chose to use Lyft instead of Uber. Not because of reach or the quality of their app. No, I specifically rejected Uber because I had heard sexist remarks from the founder and CEO. I didn’t want to reward that kind of behavior. I knew that if the CEO set that example from the top, then it would trickle down senior management, other employees, and eventually the drivers.

In practice I have found Lyft drivers to be almost universally friendly and helpful. The few times I’ve taken Uber (because someone else ordered it) I’ve found the drivers less friendly, and sometimes down right grumpy. Some drivers work for both. When my Lyft driver also drives for Uber I’ve asked them which they prefer. They always prefer working for Lyft. They say that even the customers are nicer. That’s corporate culture in action.

Allow me to present a counter example.

I recently received a lovely email from a high school senior who wanted to apply for an internship at my employer. It was a very sweet email, mentioning that she had toured our offices with one of last summer’s interns. She was impressed with both our technology and the environment. She had the opportunity to meet with our CEO and really liked how we help our customers build cool things. She liked how everyone was willing to talk to her and answer questions.

This is a girl who, still in high school, is teaching herself new languages, building realtime mobile apps, and organizing hackathons at her school. She will one day be a brilliant engineer,and she wants to work for us because she likes the environment. That is the result of a good corporate culture.

Corporate culture is how you treat people. Treat people well and openly, and good things will happen. It will float in the air and permeate everything you do. When I was hired at my current employer I was interviewing for another company at the same time. I could immediately tell there was a difference. It was just a feeling in the air. Everyone was friendly and cared about my experience, and the experience of the customer. The other company felt disjointed and chaotic. None of the interviewers seemed actually enjoy their jobs. It was obvious which one I wanted to work at

After 20 years in this business I know not to waste time in companies with bad culture. Culture matters because a good culture brings out the best in people and grows your reach. A company is like a garden. It’s easier to grow a good employee than hire one. It requires lots of planting and watering, and the occasional weeding; but a good culture produces healthy employees and happy customers. Bad culture drives away the best people and poisons the ones who stay.

At Uber, the culture is salting the fields.

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