Uber CEO and cofounder Travis Kalanick has resigned.
As Business Insider reported, Kalanick resigned in the face of a shareholder uprising, but will remain on the company’s board of directors and “retain a majority of Uber’s voting shares,” according to the New York Times.
Kalanick’s departure comes in the wake of a stunning series of controversies, starting with former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s bombshell allegations about the company’s culture of harassment. In February, Fowler published a blog post alleging that Uber’s HR department bungled handling her complaints about a supervisor who propositioned her for sex and a workplace that appeared hostile to women.
In the months since, Uber’s public image has continued to sour. The company initiated several internal investigations, including one headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder that resulted in the recent firing of more than 20 employees. Uber pledged to revamp its institutional values, prioritize measures that promote diversity and inclusion, and clean up its hard-partying reputation, as Business Insider’s Biz Carson reported.
Many are blaming Uber’s woes on the rise of bro culture — a corporate culture which tends to prioritize young men over all other employees, creating an environment that’s ripe for toxic behaviors like excessive partying and systemic harassment of colleagues.
So how does a company become infected with bro culture, and why does it seem to plague startups the most?
Part of it boils down to representation. The lack of women in leadership roles in certain male-dominated fields is a “chicken or the egg” problem. A lack of female leadership in some fields leads to fewer female mentors and fewer companies where women have a position at the upper echelons of the organization, which it turn results in fewer women entering that industry and becoming leaders themselves.
It’s a vicious cycle. Only 6% of investing partners at venture-capital companies were women as of 2014. This marks a drop from 10% in 1999, according to the Diana Project at Babson College. Meanwhile, as CNBC reported, only 9% of senior IT employees are women, according to the 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey.
In a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment, successful startups can scale rapidly. If concrete measures to encourage values such as inclusion and fairness aren’t planted in the beginning, they tend to get lost in the growth.
“Now the reality is if that bro culture isn’t acknowledged and intentionally corrected, you end up in a situation where you’ve created something that’s incredibly valuable that all of a sudden has extreme risk surrounding it, because of that culture,” Ken Ziegler, CEO of cloud-computing company LogicWorks, tells Business Insider.
“If leadership doesn’t have an intense focus on both building and sustaining the right culture for your business and the people you want to attract, it’s very easy for a toxic one to take over,” CEO of HR tech platform YouEarnedIt Autumn Manning tells Business Insider. “Building the right culture means paying attention to it from day one.”
How can companies say no to bro culture, or fix the problem if their work culture is already toxic?
“This all starts from the top,” John Hudson, a Chicago-based HR business partner with Slalom tells Business Insider. “What tone are your leaders setting and how are they behaving? To prevent this, start by having a diverse recruiting pipeline. While referral programs are fantastic, they can sometimes stifle diversity recruiting efforts. Bros refer bros.”
“I think it starts even earlier — at the source of funding,” adds Raleigh, North Carolina-based human-resources consultant Laurie Ruettimann. “If your VC or board of advisors or directors model a certain type of behavior and give you money based on that behavior, you better believe that you, as a new CEO, will behave like that.”
Ruettimann recommends instituting zero-tolerance policies for the worst offenders in a company struggling with bro culture. For everyone else, harassment and sensitivity training is important, coupled with a strong HR department with concrete and clear mechanisms for reporting bad behavior.
“You have to be totally intentional about making people aware of how they sound and the way they’re behaving and the way they use words,” Ziegler says. “The majority of the folks can be trained and sensitized and they can learn from it. It’s a learning opportunity.”
“Bro culture not only leads to inhibiting current employees from doing their best work, but also failing to attract the best talent for the job once word gets out,” Manning says.
That’s because anyone who doesn’t conform to this toxic culture tends to be held back professionally at any company that subscribes to bro culture. The result is an atmosphere that actively harms non-bros, whether by enabling outright harassment, or simply by establishing an echo chamber in which CEO-bros keep promoting other bros to top positions to the detriment of everyone else.
The earlier a company starts being aware of these issues and taking steps to counteract them, the better.