An HR Reaction to the Viral Uber Sexism Blog

Forgive me for the rambling nature of this post – it’s a little bit of an exercise in venting.

If you haven’t seen it already, a former Uber employee blogged about her experience working for the company, including harassment, threats of termination and ridiculous politics. Frankly, I’m not surprised, but it still pisses me off. As a human. As a woman. As an HR professional.

I’m going to focus on the last one, though. Reading through comments and discussion on the blog post, I see versions of: “You can’t trust HR”, “HR is there to cover up management’s ass”, “Why did she think going to HR would help?” I hear this all the time when people are talking about the function. Hell, I’ve had people tell me in my work and personal life (paraphrased) “HR is awful. You don’t seem to suck. What’s the deal?” It makes me angry to see bad behavior reenforce these views because so many HR teams are worlds better than that.

I get it, really. Traditionally, HR has been a function to handle administrative functions and avert risk. In many organizations it rolls up to the CFO. I can’t help but wonder if running decisions through the filter of “which action will most benefit the organization’s bottom line?” for decades has had an impact on the function as a whole.* In organizations where values are a little blurry or not emphasized enough, of course HR decisions are going to play out towards the most financially prudent business move. This may mean ignoring bad behavior from an executive or high-performer (see: Uber). Or initiating a massive inquiry when word gets out and there are worries of lawsuits, loss of customers, or angry investors on the horizon (see: Uber).

I see the HR and People Ops function evolving into an advocacy team for all employees. Our job should be to reenforce values, improve communication, and maximize performance across the organization to hit business objectives. That means advocating for interns, individual contributors, managers and executives. That’s tough, for sure. And it’s far more nuanced than risk-mitigation or protecting management. Being an advocate for all means there are times you need to advocate for management (for example, a termination), fall in between (mediate a disagreement), or advocate for employees (dealing with a bad manager). None of that is cut and dry, but it sure makes it much easier to sleep at night!

While I’m an idealist, I have a healthy dose of realism in me. I know that a percentage of HR departments are still firmly entrenched in an outdated mindset. A complaint is filed and instead of investigating the perpetrator in power, the HR team goes through archived emails to find something on the person who filed the claim. Or someone suddenly stops moving forward in an organization. Or their performance reviews are impacted. You know … retaliation. Some of those companies are betting on that employees won’t go through the long, expensive process to prove that in court. This makes me absolutely livid.

There are also a good chunk of well-meaning HR departments that are also powerless to do anything in many situations. A complaint is filed and run up the chain. The HR team advises an investigation and/or immediate action taken. They lay out the ethical and legal reasons to do so, and the retention risks associated with ignoring the behavior. And are told to do nothing. That sucks too – for the employee and HR team.

Both behaviors result in the same shitty experience for an employee looking for help and stem from an executive team that fails to hold people to an ethical standard, including treating people with respect. In this case, Uber’s CEO failed to make standards of behavior both crystal clear and a priority that people were held accountable to. That trickles down through leadership and, before you know it, is the pervading culture of the organization. A frontline employee doesn’t usually come to an organization unafraid to sexually proposition a direct report, right?! New hires observe the climate and mimic what others are freely doing. The CEO needs to draw a firm line with his leadership team on acceptable behavior and ensure a fair and safe place to work with some ethical standard. Then that will become the norm.

On behalf of HR … I’m sorry to people who have worked in organizations like this. I’m sorry if you have learned to avoid HR at all costs. I get it. I hope some of the better teams out there can win you over. We work really hard to earn trust and advocate for you. We don’t get everything right, but please know that there are plenty of us in the field who get up every morning with a passion for creating a great experience for all employees and redefining the function entirely. Lastly, know that there are plenty of us in the HR field who were absolutely disgusted by what we read – just like you.

* I don’t think all CFO’s are this way, but with so much on their plates and being held accountable for the bottom line, there certainly is pressure to either look at things this way, or a lack of bandwidth to really focus on people. I’ve also met some CFO’s who really give people the energy and strategic, long-range thinking they deserve.