Uber’s Diversity Report Confirms Organization’s Problems

Earlier this week, the ride-sharing company Uber released its anticipated diversity report. The report was commissioned in February after a blog post by a former Uber engineer revealed widespread discrimination and sexual harassment problems at Uber’s headquarters in California. The report, while a first step, simply confirms what already appeared to be the case: Uber’s leadership and technical staff is mostly white and male and few efforts have been made to correct these imbalances.

While Uber’s diversity may be an important first step, it falls short in terms of “transparency.” The company’s response to the report also leaves many questions. For example, it is still unclear whether Uber has a clear and viable plan to address the cultural issues that appear to be at the root of its lack of diversity.

Diversity at Uber: What the Numbers Do and Don’t Tell Us

While a high percentage of Uber drivers are Black or Hispanic, currently the company has no Black or Hispanic employees in leadership positions in tech. Indeed, their report clearly states, “Our leadership is more homogenous than the rest of our employees. For example, no Black or Hispanic employees hold leadership positions in tech. This clearly has to change—a diversity of backgrounds and experience is important at every level. This is especially important in leadership, because leaders have a disproportionate influence on the culture of teams. And research shows that leaders from diverse backgrounds are more likely to hire diverse teams themselves.” Likewise, women account for only 11.3% of tech leadership roles (compared to the 88.7% held by men).

In non-leadership tech roles, there are also notable disparities on a global and U.S. level. Uber’s global workforce includes a large number of women (just over 40%) but most of these women are in “customer support” roles. Indeed, while only 15% are in tech roles, over 50% are in customer support roles. In addition, nearly half of Uber’s customer support workers identify as Black or Hispanic. Of course, these employees generally make far less than the company’s tech staff and have few opportunities for upward advancement. Indeed, a high percentage of Uber’s customer support staff make only $10 to $15 per hour (different employees in different locations report varying levels of compensation). Like Uber’s drivers, they are typically not considered employees at all and often work from home responding to customer queries via the phone or online.

Thus, despite Uber’s statement that it is a “data-driven company” and further assurance that “The data we’re publishing today is a critical first step towards making Uber a more diverse and inclusive workplace,” there is reason to question whether the company has in fact been fully transparent.  After all, knowing that its customer support staff are not employees with access to health and retirement benefits would change how Uber’s diversity numbers are viewed. The real question that remains is how many of the company’s full-time salaried employees are women and visible minorities and how many of these salaries employees occupy tech positions and at what level.

Uber’s Response

In a New York Times interview, Liane Hornsey, who was called in to lead Uber’s HR division in the midst of the February 2017 crisis, explained, “Every strength, in excess, is a weakness. What has driven Uber to immense success — its aggression, the hard-charging attitude — has toppled over. And it needs to be shaved back.” While the comment may seem to offer an explanation for Uber’s gender and racial imbalance, the comment also raises further questions. After all, the real problem at Uber appears to be the company’s culture, but can the company’s culture be fixed simply by “shaving back” its celebration of aggressive behavior? Here, it is important to note that this is a company that currently lists among its corporate values, “always be hustlin” and being “super pumped.” With such clearly masculine and aggressive values at the organization’s core, one might wonder, where does one begin “shaving back”?

What Hornsey clearly does understand is that company’s success has placed its future in jeopardy. In recent years, Uber has expanded at a rapid pace, constantly moving into new global markets and rarely with extensive consultations. As the company has expanded, its top performers have been rewarded and promoted into management positions, but this is where the problems started: Approximately 63% of Uber’s managers had never held a leadership role prior to their appointment. Uber also made the critical error of choosing to not pour much time or any major resources into training its newly minted managers. As a result, the company mishandled hires, promotions and even sexual harassment allegations and failed to respond to problems even once they became visible. In other words, the company suffered from a leadership vacuum, and it is now paying the price. Of course, moving forward Uber faces a new challenge. Can the company attract the diverse leaders it needs to transform its current culture? This will only become apparent over time.

March 30, 2017   Updated :March 30, 2017      

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