It’s been one crisis after the other for Uber, calling into question the future of the $69 billion startup like never before.
And now it’s all coming to a head.
On Tuesday, Uber is expected to release to employees the results of an intensive months-long study into its corporate culture. The report is expected to include recommendations for how the company should address its problems.
We don’t know yet exactly what will be in the report. One of the biggest questions to be answered is what will happen to CEO Travis Kalanick; he’s reportedly considering a leave of absence.
Even ahead of the report’s release, Uber has already made some big changes. Emil Michael, Kalanick’s right-hand man and chief fundraiser, resigned Monday. And last week Uber fired more than 20 people after a separate investigation looked into 215 complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, and other bad behavior at the company.
Uber’s board has committed, unanimously, to following the recommendations of the report, whatever those turn out to be. Depending on those recommendations, the most valuable tech startup on Tuesday could have a totally new executive team or it could look like it’s protecting the status quo. Either way, the company’s response to the report could go a long way toward determining its future.
Here’s how Uber got to this precarious point and what’s at stake now:
The blog that started it all
It started with a story about “one very, very strange” year at Uber.
On February 19, Susan Fowler published a blog post about her time as an engineer at the ride-hailing company.
Fowler detailed what happened after a manager allegedly propositioned her for sex. Uber’s HR department dismissed her complaints, because the manager was a high performer, she said. When she persisted with her complaints, Uber’s HR ignored them, and then her manager threatened to fire her for reporting things to HR, she said.
She also wrote about the broader culture at Uber. One time, all the men on her team got leather jackets, she said, adding that the team’s women didn’t get any.
Fowler’s post was hard to dismiss as just the rantings of a disgruntled employee. In response to it, Kalanick immediately called for an internal investigation into the company’s work culture. In the last four months, Uber’s HR department and two law firms have been interviewing employees, fielding complaints, and digging into what went wrong at the company.
Fowler’s blog was just the beginning. Since then, the number of scandals at Uber has multiplied.
The New York Times published a bombshell story soon after Fowler’s post reporting that her claims weren’t unique. Employees did cocaine during a company retreat, and a manager had to be fired after groping multiple women, according to the report. Former employees said they’d notified Uber’s leadership, including Kalanick and CTO Thuan Pham, of the workplace harassment.
The retreat apparently wasn’t an isolated thing. Kalanick’s former girlfriend, Gabi Holzwarth, told Bloomberg she spoke to Holder’s investigators directly about two other incidents at the company.
One of them involved a visit to an escort-karaoke bar in Seoul Uber officials made in 2014 where “four male Uber managers picked women out of the group, calling out their numbers, and sat with them,” according to a report in The Information. Michael, Uber’s business head, allegedly called Holzwarth directly to ask that she not divulge that story.
Among those at the bar in Seoul was Eric Alexander, an Uber exec the company let go last week amid reports about a different scandal. Alexander, reportedly obtained the medical records of an Indian rape victim and carried them around in a briefcase for a year. According to Recode, senior Uber executives, including Kalanick and Michael, were paranoid the rape was being used by one of the company’s competitors in India to sabotage Uber.
Uber’s problems have gone beyond its alleged bro culture to include questions about its business ethics. In March, the New York Times revealed Uber secretly deceived authorities for years with a tool called “Greyball”. The company used the tool to evade authorities, particularly in cities like Boston, Paris, and Las Vegas where regulators were trying to block the ride-hailing service. The U.S. Justice Department has begun a criminal probe into “Greyball”.
What’s next? Uber executives could be on the chopping block, depending on the results.
Uber’s executive ranks have been decimated recently. The company lacks a chief financial officer, chief marketing officer, president, and a chief operating officer. And it now lacks a chief business officer, after Michael, Kalanick’s right-hand man, announced he was leaving.
But because other executives still at the company have been linked to the scandals, even more heads could still roll.
Among them might be Ryan Graves, the Uber exec and board member who oversaw the HR department. Graves has been strangely absent during the crisis, and as early as February observers inside and outside the company were wondering whether he might take the fall for Uber’s allegedly toxic culture, Business Insider reported. On top of that, Graves also had ties to and was reportedly aware of “Greyball”.
Another executive on the hot seat: Uber’s CTO, Thuan Pham, who was implicated in Fowler’s blog post. Fowler said Pham did nothing after she notified him about her boss’ threat to fire her.