Harry here. Uber’s been keeping a lot of reporters busy this month and it seems like every week, there’s another story that damages Uber’s reputation. Anecdotally, we’ve heard from drivers that all this negative press for Uber has increased the number of Lyft passenger requests they’ve been getting, so the increased competition may end up benefitting drivers in the long run. Today, senior RSG contributor John Ince shares a shocking story from a former female Uber engineer about Uber’s workplace culture, Lyft’s major expansion and a story on Uber and tipping.
Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber ( www.susanjfowler.com)
Sum and Substance: I joined Uber as a site reliability engineer (SRE) back in November 2015, and it was a great time to join as an engineer. They were still wrangling microservices out of their monolithic API, and things were just chaotic enough that there was exciting reliability work to be done. … After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR…. When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.
… So I left that team, and… I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company. It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being “his first offense”, and it certainly wasn’t his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his “first offense”. The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.
… In the background, there was a game-of-thrones political war raging within the ranks of upper management in the infrastructure engineering organization. It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job. No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: they boasted about it in meetings, told their direct reports about it, and the like. I remember countless meetings with my managers and skip-levels where I would sit there, not saying anything, and the manager would be boasting about finding favor with their skip-level and that I should expect them to have their manager’s job within a quarter or two. I also remember a very disturbing team meeting in which one of the directors boasted to our team that he had withheld business-critical information from one of the executives so that he could curry favor with one of the other executives (and, he told us with a smile on his face, it worked!)…. I feel a lot of sadness, but I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was. Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.
My Take: This is a riveting essay by a female engineer who worked at Uber a little over a year. She recounts repeated instances of sexist behavior, lying and generalized confusion inside the company. Her story apparently is just the tip of the iceberg. Since she published this article, according to the Daily News, “Dozens of Uber employees describe sexist, hostile work environment after ex-engineer speaks out.” There are many aspects to her story – dysfunctional company culture, routine lying, and blatant sexism – none of them reflect well on Uber. As bad as her allegations are about the male dominated culture, what strikes me as more damaging to Uber’s future is what she says about all the infighting, naked ambition and dysfunction inside their headquarters. One can immediately empathize with Ms. Fowler – caught in a culture of deceit with no escape other than to take the route she eventually took – to quit.
There’s a part of this story that may strike an especially responsive chord with drivers. She says HR responded to her complaint by saying the company “wouldn’t feel comfortable” giving him more than a warning. She says she was then given a choice to leave her team, or continue doing her work — with the understanding it could result in a bad performance review from the manager who harassed her. How many drivers have felt this way about the ratings they’re getting from passengers who have demonstrated by their behavior that they’re not qualified to give an impartial rating. All passengers have that implicit power to rate rate you no matter what they’ve done. Since Uber attaches different powers to the driver and passenger ratings, the passenger (like Fowler’s superior at Uber) clearly has the upper hand. Apparently, this flawed rating system is also in force inside company headquarters – helping to create the kind of corporate culture that is now being brought to light.
Appropriately, Travis Kalanick’s response was swift and decisive. He hired Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder to look into things – throwing in board member, Arianna Huffington, just for good measure. In so doing Kalanick gets kudos for doing immediate damage control, while also advertising just how deep Uber’s pockets are. Hey look … we just hired the Attorney General to investigate us – and of course we will be cutting his checks – big fat checks for helping to defuse this issue in the eyes of the public. No worries folks – Uber has this all under control …. or do they?.
Lyft expands into 54 new cities, while Uber does damage control (Money.cnn)
Sum and Substance: While Uber does damage control for its reputation, competitor Lyft is sinking its teeth into more markets. Lyft is entering 54 new cities in its largest expansion to date, the company announced Thursday. New markets include Pensacola, Florida, and Amherst, Massachusetts, making for a total of nearly 300 Lyft cities across the U.S. The announcement comes on the heels of a 40-city launch in January, when Lyft said it was eying a total of 100 new markets by the end of 2017. Just two months in, it is a mere six cities shy of meeting that goal. “We look forward to continuing this rapid momentum,” Jaime Raczka, Lyft’s head of early stage markets and expansion, said in a statement. Lyft, which offers a similar range of services as Uber, has long been the underdog to Uber’s behemoth business: Uber is valued at $68 billion, compared to Lyft’s $5.5-billion-dollar valuation.
My Take: Well that didn’t take long. On the heals of the PR fallout from Susan J. Fowler’s searing indictment of Uber, Lyft wasted no time with the biggest rollout to date. As I’ve said many times on this blog, this remains a very fluid industry. Uber’s dominance today does translate into Uber’s dominance tomorrow. Stay tuned folks.
Uber’s public Q&A with drivers was a disaster (The Verge)
Sum and Substance: Ride-hailing giant Uber today trotted out Jeff Jones, its ride-sharing president, in a public Facebook Q&A to try and address driver complaints. Given Uber’s reputation of late and its complicated and messy history with drivers, the session did not go over all that smoothly. In total, Jones answered only 12 questions on his public Facebook post. Two of those questions came from people wondering whether the session was live, while another involved Jones replying with “hey” to someone who simply wrote “hello.” After realizing that 30 minutes of his free time may not be enough to try and address perhaps the company’s biggest and most sensitive vulnerability, Jones switched to addressing broad topics with links to Uber’s website. Those topics ranged from support and earnings statements to driver ratings and rider behavior. This did not appease many of the participants in the Q&A, who began flooding Jones’ comments with complaints, angry messages, and stories of their own negative experiences with Uber’s platform. For Jones, this is probably uncharted territory. The former Target executive is used to more in-person community engagement, and he has in fact been holding small, roundtable events with drivers that have been noticeably less public than this.
Of the questions he did respond to, Jones gave a range of answers that spanned from trite to substantive. On the topic of Uber drivers’ earning potentials outside of metropolitan areas, Jones simply said, “Investing in ways to get more riders to use Uber is the first step!” Yet when one driver bluntly wrote, “We need to get paid more and treated like humans,” Jones had a little more to say: We are fixing the way we communicate with you and provide support to you — these are 100 percent about treating drivers with respect and as people. …After about 30 minutes, Jones bowed out. The Q&A has since amassed nearly 500 total comments, with many drivers clamoring for more two-way conversations with the company and for Jones to more directly answer questions instead of relying on corporate talking points. In response to his final message — in which Jones pledged to read all of the questions even if he could not answer every single one — drivers left incensed responses.
“Bottom line: Uber doesn’t care about us, and neither does Jeff Jones. This was a poorly planned, poorly executed attempt at pacification,” one user wrote. “Once Jeff realized that drivers would actually hit him with hard questions, he turned tail and ran. They don’t care about us, they never will. For now, if we get frustrated and quit, well there’s always a new sucker to sign up. And let’s not forget they hope to replace us all with self driving cars.”
My Take: Poor Jeff Jones. Uber threw their ridesharing president to the wolves last week in a Facebook chat with drivers and the results were fairly predictable – a few talking points, some company links, mixed in with vague promises and a pinch of nothing new and you’ve got about a half hour (instead of the scheduled hour) of everybody’s wasted time. That’s not completely true – I’m sure Jeff Jones was paid very well for his time so it wasn’t a waste for him. My favorite comment from Jones was, “We are fixing the way we communicate with you and provide support to you — these are 100 percent about treating drivers with respect and as people.”
Those words sound so good – fixing communication like they could just call in the plumber to fix the drain. But why can’t Jones just admit the truth – Uber has a gargantuan management problem vis a vis drivers and there is no easy fix – no cost effective solution. This is the tech world. Everything that can possibly be automated will be – in the interest of cutting costs. Uber can’t possibly manage a worldwide workforce in excess of 500,000 drivers without algorithms, auto replies, canned comments, threats, impersonal ratings and mass emails, and do it profitably – in a way that doesn’t feel patronizing and dehumanizing to drivers. They can say they are 100% about treating drivers with respect and as people. But that doesn’t mean they can do it or will do it. It’s essentially an impossible task and Jones needs to admit that to himself before he ventures into his next online chat session with drivers if he wants it be any better than this one.
Uber has absolutely no good reason for keeping tipping out of its app (Quartz)
Sum and Substance: The cringe-worthy moment came 22 minutes into a Q&A between Uber drivers and Uber ride-sharing president Jeff Jones. “Louise Thompson—love that you’re providing great service…hope you’re getting some awesome compliments!” Jones wrote on Facebook in a live discussion with drivers on Feb. 16. Jones was referring to “compliments,” an app feature the company launched this past November to let customers leave their drivers notes of appreciation when “5 stars just isn’t enough.” The rebuke from his audience was swift. “Compliments don’t pay the bills Jeff,” Facebook user Ryan Gonzales replied. If only there were something Uber could do that would help drivers pay those bills… something even nicer than a compliment, when five stars just isn’t enough. Oh! Uber could make it easier for customers to tip. Uber is unique among ride-hailing and on-demand delivery companies in its total disdain for in-app gratuities. The company maintained that tips were included in its quoted fares until a proposed class-action settlement last April forced Uber to clarify that, well, actually, they weren’t. Even then, Uber refused to add tipping to its app. Instead, it instructed riders who wished to leave a tip that they could do so in cash.
My Take: I don’t see how Jeff Jones or any other spokesperson for Uber can look a driver in the eye, unless they make this simple fix in the app. From the beginning, Uber has discouraged tipping so as not to put passengers in an awkward position. But where else in the service industry do you have this kind of mentality? It’s so friggin simple – just put tipping in the app – no more playing games with the drivers by saying one thing and doing another.
Drivers, what do you think about this week’s top stories?
-John @ RSG