Uber is in hot water again. This time over claims that, in 2014, a group of its senior managers, including founder Travis Kalanick, visited what has been described as an “escort-karaoke bar” in Seoul. The whistle was blown last month by Kalanick’s one-time girlfriend.
This “scandal” closely follows the allegations of sexual harassment and misogyny brought on by a former engineer and a video of Kalanick arguing with one of his drivers.
I am no Uber fan. I use it only for trips that are short and go in a straight line, and my rating is so low that I may soon be blocked. More significantly, I despise Uber for not striking against Donald Trump’s Muslim ban in January and Kalanick for joining – albeit briefly – Trump’s advisory team.
But Uber has become an easy target for ideological attacks.
When a former engineer described in a blog post how she had been allegedly harassed during her time at Uber, several high-profile commentators were quick off the mark to call for the derailment of any future Uber IPO. Really? Based on an unverified statement of one employee? What about the principles of fairness and objectivity? What about giving Uber a chance to respond?
I read this woman’s claims, and they did not convince me. If anything, the picture that emerged was of an employee who spent most of her time in the office keeping logs of conversations, taking screenshots of emails and snitching to HR. I cannot imagine how she had any time or energy left for the “amazing work” that she claims to have done at Uber.
But more significantly, Arianna Huffington, who is overseeing the internal inquiry launched as a result of the claims, has said that sexual harassment is not “a systemic problem” at the company. Perhaps we should wait to boycott that IPO after all?
Then there was the Kalanick “anger” video, in which the company’s founder was caught on a dashboard camera arguing with an Uber driver, for which he later apologised. I watched it, and the person who comes off worse is actually the driver. Kalanick remained even-toned for most of their exchange, and I could not understand what the whole uproar was about until finally he said the word “s**t”. I had much stronger-worded conversations in the office most weeks.
But the Seoul allegations are even more incredulous. Apparently, in 2014, Kalanick, a female employee, his girlfriend and several senior managers visited an escort-karaoke bar. I don’t know what it means either, but prostitution is illegal in South Korea – so it’s not that kind of joint. There, several managers chose “a girl” and, Kalanick’s ex-girlfriend’s testimony goes, “went downstairs with her…” Here I paused and drew a deep breath – only to realise that the managers went downstairs “to sing karaoke”.
Such behaviour is certainly in bad taste, but, to be fair, it does not cross the line.
Uber has spent a good part of this year responding to accusations, launching inquiries and issuing obligatory apologies, while Kalanick has adopted a permanent look of a beaten dog.
I have no doubt that Uber’s culture has many remnants of its reckless startup past and needs normalising. But I also have no doubt that some of the accusations thrown its way ride on a wave of ideological righteousness – and we are too quick to side with what is traditionally perceived as a weak party.
In the end, accusations against Uber may well prove to be founded. But it’s important that we reserve judgement until then. And if we decide that Uber is uninvestable in the meantime, it should be over the Muslim ban – not the karaoke bar.