Lessons from the Uber scandal: how to tackle discriminatory culture in the workplace

Emma Ahmed
German Court Bans Uber Service Nationwide
Lessons employers can learn from Uber controversy (Source: Getty)

Earlier this week, Uber’s chief executive Travis Kalanick revealed he was taking an indefinite leave of absence following a probe into the firm’s corporate culture.

Reports also suggest Uber has fired more than 20 staff, and is considering disciplinary action against 95 other employees, after an investigation into discrimination, sexual harassment and other wrongdoing within the business.

The inquiry seemed to be prompted by a former employee’s blog which detailed the sexual harassment and discrimination she had allegedly encountered during her time at Uber. It led to the uncovering of over 200 allegations, of which more than half related to discrimination or harassment.

This is likely to be an embarrassing and costly experience for Uber, but it holds some important lessons for other employers.

Always properly and thoroughly investigate discrimination complaints

The blogger alleges female staff made repeated complaints about sexual harassment and discrimination, many of which related to the same manager. Those complaints should have rung alarm bells sooner, and the poor behaviour should have been swiftly and robustly tackled.

Read more: Uber and out (for now): Boss Travis Kalanick will take a leave of absence

Being a high performer is no excuse for harassment

The blog claims that HR repeatedly told the female complainants that the manager in question had been given a stern telling off because this was his “first offence” and he was a “high performer”. These are not valid excuses for discrimination or harassment, and his behaviour should have been promptly dealt with.

Don’t punish the complainant or threaten to dismiss them

The blogger alleges she was threatened with dismissal for making a sexual harassment complaint to HR. In the UK, it’s illegal to punish a discrimination complainant in this way, and it’s unfair to dismiss someone because they have made a discrimination complaint.

Overlooking a culture of discrimination is bad for business

While this situation was unfolding, many highly qualified female staff reportedly left the business. To prevent the loss of valuable talent, employers should hold exit interviews with departing staff and keep a close eye on their turnover rates, to see if patterns emerge which might suggest there is a bigger underlying problem.

A robust approach to equal opportunities can provide a defence

Discrimination and harassment complaints can prove very costly for employers, because the employee can be awarded unlimited compensation (including compensation for their injured feelings as well as for any financial loss). But an employer will have a defence if it can show it took reasonable steps to prevent discrimination.

What’s reasonable will differ from business to business, but an employment tribunal will at least expect to see regular equal opportunities training. It’s also often worth reminding staff they can be personally liable for their own acts of harassment or discrimination.

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