Uber CEO Travis Kalanick joined a group of more than 100 female engineers on Thursday to discuss the explosive allegations of sexual harassment and sexism recently leveled against the ride-hailing company. During an hourlong meeting, the engineers grilled Kalanick on what they say is a systemic problem at the company and urged him to begin “listening to your own people,” according to an audio recording obtained by BuzzFeed News.
“In a situation where many women have experienced this kind of thing, the onus is on us to earn credibility,” Kalanick said. “Part of how we get to that place where there’s more optimism is by taking it and apologizing, understanding, and doing everything we can to get to the bottom of it.”
Held four days after the publication of a damning essay penned by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler Rigetti, the meeting revealed a company scrambling to address an ugly crisis, with a contrite and emotional Kalanick promising “credible, thorough justice” via an internal investigation by former Attorney General Eric Holder and Uber board member Arianna Huffington.
“I think that we should kind of address the elephant in the room ... which is that everyone who’s in these rooms now ... believes that there is a systemic problem here. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t,” one engineer told Kalanick. “I do not think that we need [Eric Holder’s] help in admitting to ourselves as a company that we have a systemic problem.”
“Fair enough. Fair enough. Fair enough,” Kalanick replied. “I understand.”
Circling back to the same question later in the meeting, Kalanick added, “There are people in this room who have experienced things that are incredibly unjust. I want to root out the injustice. I want to get at the people who are making this place a bad place. And you have my commitment. I understand that this is bigger than the Susan situation and I want you to know that I’m all about rooting this out and being very aggressive about that, while also being supportive and empathetic and trying to build that support and empathy throughout the organization...It's a little bit emotional for me and I’m sorry. I'm sure its emotional for some of you too."
Kalanick’s meeting with Uber’s “Lady Eng” group caps a week of upset and declining morale at the ride-hail company, which is still bruised from last month’s viral #DeleteUber campaign. Rigetti's essay inspired a flood of criticism and media scrutiny that Kalanick's apology to Uber employees during a Tuesday company-wide meeting has done little to temper. On Wednesday, the New York Times published a scathing account of the company’s work culture, citing an incident in which a manager groped a female employee and another case in which a different manager threatened to beat an underperforming employee with a baseball bat. A day later, Uber investors Mitch and Freada Kapor published an open letter to Uber's board and investors decrying "toxic patterns" at the company and criticizing it for choosing "a team of insiders to investigate its destructive culture and make recommendations for change."
“Eric Holder has been working on behalf of Uber since at least last June, when he and his firm were hired to advocate on behalf of Uber to lawmakers concerning using fingerprints as part of background checks on drivers,” the Kapors explained. “Arianna Huffington has held a board seat for about a year and is deeply invested in the company weathering the PR crisis.”
Kalanick did his best to rebut this criticism during the Lady Eng meeting. “There are very few law firms in the world that we haven’t worked with in some way. The amount of fees that have gone to Eric Holder is as close to 0 as you can get to date," Kalanick said, adding that Uber is “still working through the accounting."
“Holder’s like, ‘look, when you come up with the numbers, don’t let my partners know because I haven’t made any money,’ ” Kalanick continued, noting the former US Attorney General's efforts on behalf of Uber to argue against the use of fingerprint-based background checks for ride-hailing service drivers. “He believes that fingerprints are incredibly discriminatory to people of color. For him this really felt like pro bono work from his side.”
In a message to BuzzFeed News after publication of this article, Uber said that Holder was in fact paid for his advocacy on fingerprinting issues for the company. The company also insisted that his position was consistent with his actions as US attorney general.
Liane Hornsey, Uber’s chief human resources officer, also attended the meeting and urged employees to trust that the company is working to address its aggressive workplace culture. "I know many people are in pain, and I know there’s many things we have to go through together," she said. "But at some point, we just have to shift into something that is more positive and assumes trust, and tries to believe that we’re doing the right thing.”
Another engineer asked Kalanick what he thought of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s comments two years ago that women should trust that “the system will actually give you the right raises,” despite low diversity at technology companies.
“I believe that first the trust must be earned,” Kalanick said. “But I also understand that we’re operating here in a system that hasn't earned that trust. ... God willing, we will earn it. But we still need to do that.”
Uber declined to comment.
Uber provided the following statement from Eric Holder: “I will put my personal reputation behind everything that I say. I think I’ve demonstrated throughout my career the ability to be independent, to not be afraid to express contrary views, and that’s what I’ve told everybody here at Uber. If you are going to ask me to do this, you have to be prepared for me to simply look at the facts as they are, look at the policies as they are, look at the culture as it is and make recommendations, make findings on that basis, without any regard for anything other than that.”
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Priya Anand is a tech and transportation reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
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