One clear way wise companies can avoid Uber’s big mistake

Something called an ombuds could have connected the dots at Uber

Seanan Fong
Mar 1, 2017 · 6 min read

By Amanda Dean and Seanan Fong

Susan Fowler’s post last week has made waves around the industry. Beyond the reflexive Uber-bashing, however, there are lessons here that every company — especially quickly-scaling, dynamic ones like Uber — should be learning.

Four organizational design failures at Uber

There were likely ethical failures on the part of individuals at every step of Fowler’s story. But well-designed organizations should be able to handle these individual failures. As an organization, Uber suffered from four systemic failures that plague many rapidly-scaling companies:

The signal ceiling. Fowler had important signal for the company about a pervasive, significant problem — something that, had a responsible CEO known about it, they would have wanted addressed immediately. And yet, when Uber CEO Travis Kalanick finally did receive this signal through a PR crisis, he responded with surprise — if we’re taking him at his word, he had no knowledge that these allegations were happening in his own company.

We can trace this disconnect to what we call the “signal ceiling” — the barrier between the people with important signal to relay to the company, and the people who need to hear it. Fowler was below this signal ceiling — try as she might, there was no way for her to get past her chain of command or HR to the people who could make a real difference without fearing harm to herself. Kalanick was on the other side of this ceiling — as a responsible CEO, he would have to hear this signal but he had no way to get it.

If companies want to avoid mistakes like Uber’s, they have to design ways to penetrate that ceiling, and better yet, prevent it from forming.

Fairness and empathy failure. Fowler had nowhere to turn in this painful situation — she was alone and vulnerable, and ultimately she felt treated unfairly by a company whose mission she had deeply believed in. As a result, even as a high performer herself, her experience of unfairness and lack of empathy led to her departure from the company.

No way to challenge existing conventions. Fowler might not have been the only person stuck in a difficult place — the HR person might have also been in a bind. A key aspect of HR’s job is to make sure that the company is compliant with ethical and legal obligations, particularly when it comes to things like sexual harassment. Yet in Fowler’s case, there may have been such strong unwritten conventions protecting Fowler’s alleged harasser that the HR person — even if she had tried to — could not fulfill that aspect of her job. Even if the HR person had the best of intentions, there may have been no way for her to challenge the norms set by her superiors shielding “high-performers” from being dealt with properly.

Perverse effects of well-intentioned cultural values. Uber is known for its buzzy cultural values: “Let Builders Build, “ “Make Magic,” “Be Obsessed.” Yet somehow, these cultural values failed at creating a workplace culture where allegations like Fowler’s are taken seriously, and perhaps even contributed to a situation where a significant portion of its workforce does not feel respected. Somewhere along the line, these cultural values failed to do their job.

The missing link

These organizational failures are hard for any company to address, simply because they are hard to change from within. In this case in particular, the agents you would hope could be changemakers — HR, legal, company leadership — seem to have all fallen victim to the failures above.

That is why companies hoping to avoid these mistakes benefit massively from a problem-solving resource that is:

  • Absolutely confidential — so that people like Fowler, who have nowhere else to turn, can trust that they can share their problems without fear of it getting in the hands of potential retributors;
  • Absolutely independent — so that the the resource can maintain the trust of the company’s workforce without fear of the “problem-solving” becoming a part of company politics;
  • Absolutely informal — so that people like Fowler can trust they can use the resource without triggering some formal process outside of their control;
  • Absolutely impartial — so that the resource can maintain its effectiveness as a problem-solver without taking sides; and
  • Strongly integrated into the company — so that the resource can maintain informal knowledge to solve problems and relay issues.

This role would then be available for people like Fowler, and could connect the dots, identify trends, and report those upward to the highest level — helping avoid the failures we saw above.

Luckily, there is already such a role. It’s called the “organizational ombudsman,” or “ombuds” for short.

The ombuds is a problem-solving resource operating under the parameters bulleted above — confidentiality, independence, informality, and impartiality — that anyone in the company can access for help resolving difficult or sensitive issues.

Shown to be effective in businesses, universities, and other areas, the ombuds is a high-upside investment with minimal downside. By addressing hard people problems without adding layers of bureaucratic process, the ombuds’ agility and effectiveness is particularly well suited to dynamic, scaling tech companies.

What would an ombuds do?

Administering to Fowler. If Uber had a properly established ombuds, Fowler would know she had somewhere to turn as a parallel resource to HR and management. In her confidential visit with the ombuds, she could get help getting clarity on what the issues are, what matters in resolving them, and what Fowler’s options for resolution are — within the company and without. If an ombuds had been available to Fowler, Fowler would have found an understanding yet impartial ear that could help her navigate her situation with clarity and confidence — and maybe not have left the company with such resentment.

Administering to the HR person. If it’s the case that the HR person’s hands were tied by the unwritten norms protecting Fowler’s alleged harasser, the HR person could also seek the ombuds for help resolving this issue in a proper way and, at the very least, to think through her options and make sure the ombuds receives that data point. If an ombuds had been available to the HR person, she may have found more creative ways to ensure a more appropriate response to Fowler’s complaint.

Connecting the dots and relaying anonymized signal. If other women came to the ombuds with similar complaints — as existed according to Fowler’s article — the ombuds would be able to connect the dots and relay the confidential, anonymized, aggregated signal to the CEO (while protecting, of course, the full anonymity of any parties involved). If truly the case, the ombuds could relay the facts privately: “There is a trend of women reporting harassment and a trend of reports of harassment being suppressed.” Then the CEO could take appropriate action. If an ombuds had been available to Uber CEO Kalanick, he may have gotten the signal he needed before it exploded into damaging PR mess and legal risk.

Troubleshooting culture. Because the ombuds has unique access to these confidential inputs, the ombuds can do deep dives (root cause analyses) on the issues that they present, and relay that signal (again, completely anonymized) to the CEO. In this case, the ombuds might dig deeper into how the cultural value of “meritocracy” has, instead of encouraging hard, smart work, perversely encouraged deception (in HR) and, possibly, immunity for “high performers.”

Designing for human error

Humans at Uber — like humans everywhere every day — made a series of mistakes, resulting in what appears to be a terrible injustice to Fowler and others at Uber. (Not to mention a massive PR fiasco and legal risk.)

Wise and responsible companies will recognize that they must design for this kind of human error — beginning with establishing roles like the ombuds.

Amanda Dean is a conflict management specialist and founder of Crux Consulting. She specializes in working with the young companies creating culture inside and outside of the workplace. Using facilitation, mediation, and ombudsing, she helps companies find and solve the crux of their internal challenges. She is based in Atlanta.

Seanan Fong is an ombudsman and the founder of Cylinder Project, where he helps startups and teams turn disagreements and grievances into insights and learning. His practice combines expertise in conflict resolution with a background focusing on tech startups. He is based in the Bay Area.

Cylinder Project

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