Uber and the Cost of a Culture of Corruption

'Personification of the Faculty of Law' from the pedestal of the statue of Emperor Charles IV, Prague, Czech Republic - via Wikimedia Commons

Even before I hit the “Publish” button on Monday’s post, “Regulating Software Development”, I had already started composing this post in my head. In that post I had used the words “corrupt culture” in passing. I needed to expand on that, because I believe that’s what lies at the heart of Uber’s cascading collection of scandals.

Uber’s business model has always displayed a certain flexible attitude towards government regulation. Greyball represented a departure from dancing on the line to barging over it. Caught with their hand in the cookie jar, Uber has now announced “We are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward”. I doubt this act of contrition on their part will be deemed sufficient.

In this environment, Susan Fowler’s account of her time at Uber becomes less of a “how could they be so stupid” story and more of a foregone conclusion. When, to all appearances, violating the law is part of your business model and you’re building software intended to thwart enforcement of the laws you’re violating, your moral authority is rather thin. In this type of culture, I’d imagine things like unwanted sexual advances and retaliation aren’t seen as a big deal, rather business as usual. Crossing lines, like other activities, becomes easier with practice.

Assuming that there will be negative consequences (both legal and financial), from these incidents, then it is in Uber’s best interests to fix the problem that led to them in the first place. This means radically changing Uber’s culture, otherwise new problems will continue to arise. Uber’s CEO has announced that the company is looking for leadership assistance:

“This morning I told the Uber team that we’re actively looking for a Chief Operating Officer: a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey,” Kalanick said in a statement on Tuesday.

It remains to be seen whether this will represent a radical change in leadership or not. Anything less than a radical change will be unlikely to affect the current culture which appears to be a deeply entrenched. Debbie Madden, CEO of Stride, published an open letter to Uber’s Travis Kalanick on Wednesday. In “Dear Travis Kalanick: Here’s What You Must Demand From Uber’s New COO”, she noted that “Uber’s culture is broken and you need help to fix it”. She outlined seven steps to do just that:

Step 1: Change Uber’s core values

Step 2: Kill Greyball

Step 3: Adopt a zero-tolerance harassment policy and fire offenders

Step 4: Hire a strong head of HR and an employment lawyer and educate employees

Step 5: Fire or PIP each manager and HR employee who turned a blind eye

Step 6: Shift focus from individual productivity to team productivity

Step 7: Change your recruiting process

Uber isn’t the only organization in trouble due to a troubled culture. Volkswagen is in the same boat and it isn’t over yet. It’s reported that the pollution hidden by their cheating on emissions testing could contribute to the early death of 1,200 Europeans. It’s a solid bet that there will be more litigation to come.

Uber hasn’t killed anyone as a result of their corporate culture, but with their interest in self-driving vehicles, we should all be rooting for a turn-around in the ethics department. Uber can only exist in the future by eliminating the Uber of the past.

5 thoughts on “Uber and the Cost of a Culture of Corruption

  1. “It’s reported that the pollution hidden by their cheating on emissions testing could contribute to the early death of 1,200 Europeans.”

    Have you read that study? I can see why few sites were willing to link directly to it. There’s so much admitted guesswork there that I’m reasonably sure that a dartboard would yield results as meaningful. And even at that, the best that they could come up with is the weasel-word loaded phrase “Could contribute to”?


    • Nope, I didn’t have to read it. At this point, the quality of the study is irrelevant, their past bad behavior makes them guilty of future ones (note, I’m not endorsing the situation, merely observing on the realities). They’re going to have a target on their back for a very long time.


  2. New topic, new comment. 🙂

    “Anything less than a radical change will be unlikely to affect the current culture which appears to be a deeply entrenched.”

    Appearances are usually deceiving.

    It’s interesting to me how these things happen, and why. I’ve seen this sort of behavior because of “cliquishness”, namely a group of people at the top with certain shared cultures (long-time military) and little use for people without that background. I’ve seen it because of fear- for instance an HR department that literally implemented a “closed door” policy because they were all scared they’d be fired for rocking the boat. One was all about money. A division head literally didn’t care what employees did as long as revenue continued to increase. And whatever scenario just popped into your head with a “Surely, he didn’t mean that” probably happened there. And don’t call me Shirley.

    Point is, what can appear to be a “culture” problem can often be people protecting themselves in response to a few toxic people at the top. Seen it and actually got a t-shirt because of one of them. The real sign of a problem isn’t those people- it’s in how people react to them. In most of the cases I saw, mid-level leadership was trying to make the best of a really bad situation. It often resulted in some (to be kind) sketchy behavior but I could see (mostly in hindsight) how these people were as trapped as I was. Just in a different trap.

    The real problem is when people react to problems at the top by using the problems to their own benefit. Saw that once, too. The fix was literally everyone in management- team leads to the division VP- getting fired, along with a big chunk of employees. There was just no saving that division.


    • Agreed for the most part. However, it takes a special kind of spineless for someone to break the law because they’re afraid of being fired.

      “One was all about money. A division head literally didn’t care what employees did as long as revenue continued to increase.”

      No problem believing that at all…it’s just a special case of the “give a manager a target and they’ll meet it if they have to burn the company to the ground”. Like you say, it generally starts at the top (particularly when it’s this systemic). Any organization can have a something crop up because someone had a lapse, but when it’s widespread and varied like this, it goes deep into the roots of the organization.

      I think the big questions are how many bodies will hit the floor and whether Travis goes too or gets stuffed and put on display in a corner office (the golden rule applies here – those with the gold will rule).


  3. Pingback: When One System Fails Another | Form Follows Function

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