Uber: When bad company culture becomes a PR problem

By in Views
On March 24, 2017

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company culture tech PR

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick isn’t having a good 2017 – and it’s only March.

First, the company faced a #DeleteUber consumer boycott over Kalanick’s involvement in President Trump’s business advisory council and decision to remove surge pricing during a taxi strike over the President’s travel ban. This resulted in 200,000 people deleting their accounts and Kalanick stepping down from the council.

Then, there was the lawsuit brought by Google, alleging Uber had stolen its self-driving car technology.

Next, there were the explosive revelations of former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, alleging rampant sexual harassment during her year-long employment. Not helping matters is the resignation of Uber svp Amit Singhal around the same time, who failed to disclose he left Google amid allegations of sexual harassment.

That was followed by a report from the New York Times, highlighting how Uber deceived authorities to skirt local taxi laws. There was also the video of Kalanick that was released to the press, showing him arguing with an Uber driver about fares.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Uber president Jeff Jones resigned recently after only six months on the job, stating that ‘the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.’

Ouch!

Uber’s struggles aren’t new. But, as Jones suggests, many of these wounds are self-inflicted and can be traced back to bad culture. While there have been murmurs of a toxic company culture in the press for a couple of years now, Uber ducked and dodged these stories with a few prepared statements saying they were taking these concerns seriously and working to address them. But as the scandals mount, it appears consumers are no longer willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Uber is learning the hard way that bad company culture doesn’t just affect employee morale and inhibit innovation. When left unresolved, toxic company culture can easily turn into damaging corporate reputation issues and a full-blown PR crisis.

Getting cultured

Ask any CEO about their top three success indicators, and a strong company culture will most likely be on every list. Good culture starts at the top. If the executive team isn’t leading by example, who can employees look to? Companies with good culture have employees that genuinely love their jobs, care about the quality of their work, and become their own brand advocates. Companies with bad culture tend to have offices that resemble more of a soap opera than a place of business, and can’t seem to hang on to good talent.

Building a strong company culture takes more than simply putting a foosball table in the break room or starting Beer Fridays. It means actually listening to your employees and giving them what they want. Do many of your employees have long commutes? Consider flexible hours or remote working options. Are your younger staff starting their own families? Do your company’s childcare benefits need improving?

Company culture isn’t something you set and stick to, either. It should evolve and grow to meet business needs. When Uber entered the scene, it quickly gained a reputation for its fratboy culture and take-no-prisoners approach to industry disruption. Almost overnight, Uber became the face of the new ‘sharing economy.’ But it failed to mature its culture as the company grew up. And that’s when the fratboy image started to become a liability, especially when complaints of sexual harassment began to surface.

Culture shock

Most companies will go through periods of culture clashes. Perhaps the business doubled its staff in a short period, creating new employee relationship dynamics. Perhaps it acquired another company. Or maybe the business is experiencing a sales slump, affecting morale. If the company isn’t quick to resolve those issues, the risk of a culture issue becoming a corporate reputation problem intensifies. For companies like Uber in the public spotlight, disgruntled employees know they have the ear of the press eagerly waiting in the wings for any fallout.

Uber is a cautionary tale for what could happen when you don’t take company culture seriously. While poor culture can easily turn into a PR problem, it’s not something that can be easily fixed by PR. That kind of change has to come from within and it needs to be authentic, not just skin deep. Had the company focused more resources on creating a welcoming, inclusive environment for people of any age, gender or race to work in, Kalanick might be having a better year.

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