Uber’s HR chief Liane Hornsey should be the next to go

Image: ERIC RISBERG/AP/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

When serious questions first began to emerge about Uber’s culture, Liane Hornsey didn’t see a problem.

The chief of human resources for the company, the person who is supposed to be the top representative for Uber employees, just wasn’t worried, and she didn’t see what former Uber engineer Susan Fowler described in her viral blog post back in February.

“(Fowlers) blog shocked me, Hornsey told USA Today in May. But, what did surprise me, was when I did the listening sessions, this didnt come up as an issue. It wasnt one of our big themes. Other things came up that are in that area, that our values are masculine and a little aggressive, but the harassment issue, I just didnt find that at all.

That’s good PR. For HR, not so much.

Uber’s gender discrimination and harassment scandal has now claimed the job of Travis Kalanick, the cofounder and CEO, whose resignation caps off a brutal stretch in which Uber has parted ways with a large chunk of its senior leadership.

Here’s a look at the few executives left:

Image: Bob Al-Greene

How Hornsey has remained at the company is something of a mystery. No other executive at the company has been as vocal in contradicting the claims of former employees as the leadership crumbled around her.

Meanwhile, the failure of Uber’s HR department to address claims from its employees occupied a crucial part of the company’s broader problem. Maybe it’s impossible to prevent harassment and discrimination entirely, but it’s negligent HR that allows problems to become systemic.

“I desperately wanted to not have to interact with HR ever again,” Fowler wrote about her experience in trying to address her manager’s sexual advances.

That’s problematic, especially given the important role an HR department has.

“The purpose of a human resource management senior vice president is to, first of all, form the strategy for what a company ought to be doing in human capital management, what is going to be the corporate culture, for example,” said Douglas McCabe, professor of management and human capital at Georgetowns McDonough School of Business.

“Most importantly in my mind is they have to establish good employee voice and organizational due process systems,” he continued. “It has to be a totally transparent organization.”

HR should be a priority, especially within young, fast-growing companiesthough it often isn’t.

“Up until Ellen Pao blew the whistle on [Kleiner Perkins], they didnt have HR. I would never say HR should be one of your first five hires, however, you should have someone who is familiar not just with legal expertise but people with a moral compass,” Leslie Miley, an outspoken diversity and inclusion advocate who currently works at Slack, told Mashable last month.

Uber had an HR department, but it apparently was broken, according to Fowler’s account. Recode later reported that Ryan Graves, head of operations, was essentially in charge but didn’t really take the responsibility seriously. Renee Atwood, who served in the head of HR role before Hornsey, reported to Graves and not Kalanickunlike most other positions at the ride-hailing giant.

Hornsey can’t be blamed for every scandal at Uber. She only joined in November 2016long after the leadership had stolen medical records of a rape victim and passed it around, and after CEO Travis Kalanick and SVP of business Emil Michael visited a karaoke-escort bar.

She wasn’t in charge when Fowler, who blew the whistle on the sexual harassment and toxic workplace culture, was reporting to her company what she was experiencing, in hope of changes.

And since she’s joined, Hornsey hasn’t completely dropped the ball. She has taken hundreds of meetings with employees at Uber. The questionable moves notwithstanding, sources inside Uber and those who have worked with Hornsey at other companies said she has done positive work.

“I worked with her at Google. She’s legit and can be part of the solution,” a former Google employee told Mashable. Hornsey led the global people operations at Google from 2006 to 2014.

Another employee at Uber said Hornsey has been open to listening, but she also appeared to be team “Kalanick should stay at Uber.” Both Arianna Huffington, who is an Uber board member and is serving as one of the leaders of fixing the culture, and Hornsey repeatedly told Uber employees that the fondly-nicknamed TK would not be stepping down, according to two sources.

That came through in Hornsey’s public statements. While Fowler and others, such as a former engineer who Mashable spoken with, pointed to examples of sexism, Hornsey denied that it was a problem at Uber.

Many of her statements seem meant to protect the company instead of its workers.

Hornsey’s own behavior can at times come off as slightly bizarre.

The external investigation into Uber recommended new regulations to curb the consumption of alcohol at the company, particularly within its offices. At the recent all-hands meeting to discuss the report, Hornsey thought it was the appropriate time to repeatedly joke about drinking, according to leaked audio obtained by Yahoo Finance.

“I read yesterday if I say bloody, you all have to take a shot,” Hornsey said, shortly after saying that word. “But only after hours. Sorry.”

The meeting was an opportunity to communicate to employees that things would be getting better, that employees should have faith that Uber could be a great place to work, that they had value at the company.

Instead, Hornsey issued what seemed like a warning.

“I want to finish today by saying, put your bloody, put your resumes down, put your bloody phone down, that’s four shots, on the recruiters. And join with me to make this company everything it needs to be,” Hornsey said.

The upside is that with Kalanick resigning, along with Emil Michael and board member David Bonderman, Uber’s leadership suddenly looks far more different now than it did just a few months ago. Women are far better represented in its leadership, though it will remain to be seen who is tapped to fill a variety of major roles.

And though these exits would indicate the culture is changing, the HR problem seems to be unaddressed. Kalanick’s exit is certainly a major move, but without changes to how Uber will handle future issuesand it’s hard to believe there won’t be future issuesquestions remain about the company’s commitment to change.

The Anita Borg Institute (ABI), which advocates for women in the tech industry, dropped Uber as a partner last month and questioned the company’s moves.

“One of the things we look for is: What is the commitment from the top? Are you looking at the numbers in detail? Are you looking at the sentiment? What are you doing to make sure youre looking at every process?” Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president of marketing, alliances, and programs at ABI, told Mashable in an interview last month.

Change, big change, needs commitment and honestyand no jokes about drinking.

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