Walking to Work

4 reasons not to run your company like Uber

Right now, company culture is being defined by one four-letter word: Uber. And it seems Uber is attempting to fix their toxic culture. However, that’s not really the case if you dig below the surface. In fact, Uber is only doing damage control on one aspect that has the most financial liability — the myriad of sexual harassment claims. Uber is looking to former US attorney general Eric Holder to lead the investigation and a human resource consultant to “fix” the culture problem. The fact is, lawyers don’t have a clue about culture, and human resource people are generally ignored. The human resource consultant will have little to no authority to do anything. If Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, thinks his culture problem is limited to sexual harassment, he is dead wrong. He has a culture that has all the elements of toxicity and here are the four most lethal:

1. Profit at all cost and above everything else. This is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. This is particularly true when the profit targets are unreasonable (which usually follows profit at all cost). It leads people to cook the books as witnessed by Wells Fargo when it defrauded millions of customers. In Uber’s case, it leads people to conceal problems for fear of losing profit.

2. Hubris resulting from too much success too fast. Uber started with a good idea and a market need, and it resulted in phenomenal market success. But its success turned to arrogance and blinded it to the developing culture firestorm that erupted. And its success led it to believe it could do no wrong. Here is the problem with that belief — an organization that believes it can do no wrong never believes it did anything wrong. And if nothing’s wrong, there is nothing to fix. That is one reason why Uber hasn’t fixed its culture problem.

3. Treating employees as depreciable assets instead of as renewable resources. This is almost certainly the case with Uber. And it goes well beyond sexual harassment. I once talked to an Uber driver who expressed great dissatisfaction over the way she was treated. As one example, when an Uber driver gets a notice about a pick-up, they have no idea if it is a ten-minute or two-hour job until after they accept the assignment. The point is Uber treats its drivers just like depreciable machines — use them until they are used up. And there is no reason to tell a machine how long it will run today.

4. Telling employees half the truth and hoping the other half doesn’t show up. I suspect Uber isn’t even telling their employees half the truth. When employees are left in the dark, they make stuff up around the water cooler. And usually what they make up isn’t half as bad as what is really going on. I always say, “trust in truth.” Tell employees the bone honest truth all the time and they will trust you. And they will follow you. Employees won’t trust you if they feel you are keeping something from them. And that leads to them turning to lawyers or labor unions for help.

Bottom line, Travis Kalanick isn’t part of Uber’s culture problem. He is the problem. He owns the culture. He built it. Or perhaps he ended up with what I call a “culture by default” as so many organizations do. In either case, he can’t change it now.  

Uber doesn’t need fancy lawyers and a happiness consultant to fix its culture problem. It needs a new CEO. And the first order of business for the new CEO would be to really dig in and figure out what Uber’s culture really is. As they say, you can’t fix something until you know what is broken. Only after this assessment is made will Uber know the full extent of its culture problem. Some cultures are so ingrained and pervasive they can’t be fixed. I suspect Uber is one of them.

Steven L. Blue is the President & CEO of Miller Ingenuity, an innovative company revolutionizing traditional safety solutions for railway workers, and author of the new book, American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right. For more information, visit www.StevenLBlue.com, www.milleringenuity.com.