Sexual Harassment At Uber Reminds Us That HR Is Not Your Friend

Sexual Harassment At Uber Reminds Us That HR Is Not Your Friend

One of the key takeaways from my book, How To Engineer Your Layoff, is understanding that the Human Resources department is not on your side. First and foremost, the HR department is there to protect the company from liability. After such protection is made, maybe then HR will help a troubled employee with a problem.

My experience comes from being a manager at a major financial organization, having to work with HR to hire and lay off staff, negotiating my own severance, and consulting with dozens of people about negotiating their own severance since publishing my book in 2012. Your best strategy is to befriend HR but hold sensitive information close to heart right before making a move.

Because Uber is the most successful startup of all time at its current stage, it’s always going to be a target. The latest damning news about the company comes from Susan Flowers, a former engineer at Uber who penned a post called, Reflecting On One Very Strange Year At Uber. You should read the post if you are an employee, manager, woman, startup entrepreneur, or work in HR. You should also read the post if you’re a bored retiree crazy enough to think that going back to work will make you happier!

Susan writes that she was sexually harassed at Uber and denied upward mobility due to being a woman. This is not a surprise for those of us who have experience working in Silicon Valley, an area dominated by socially awkward men who’ve suddenly become hot stuff due to their computer engineering skills. Here’s an excerpt from her post:

“On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.”

Clearly, this type of behavior from a manager is NOT OK. The manager should be fired for trying to take advantage of a subordinate. No employee should ever have to feel uncomfortable going to work.

However, if your goal is to survive an organization’s politics and land mines, immediately reporting your manager to HR for any grievances could be a suboptimal career move. Instead, it’s important to consider CONFRONTING your oppressor first, spelling out exactly what it is s/he is doing that makes you feel uncomfortable. Have a conversation.

Yes, confrontation is sometimes scary, but it is a must to help save your skin. Most oppressors don’t get confronted because the majority of people they maltreat are terrified to stand up to them. It’s so much easier to report someone than work out difficult and unsuitable situations yourself. Heck, trying to solve difficult situations is why most people quit instead of engineer their layoff.

But what you’ll find is that once you stand up to your oppressor, he should get the message and back off. The bully now knows you won’t stand for his bullshit, and if the bully continues, he knows he’s putting his career and reputation at risk.

One confrontation hack I used when it was time for me to face someone at work was envisioning what type of power this person or senior employee had over me OUTSIDE of work. The answer was always nothing. He was just another regular chump I could whip on the tennis court or in a dark alley. Get your mind fierce.

Here are more excerpts from her post highlighting how Susan continuously reported everything she felt was wrong to HR:

“Things were beginning to get even more comically absurd with each passing day. Every time something ridiculous happened, every time a sexist email was sent, I’d sent a short report to HR just to keep a record going.

Less than a week after this absurd meeting, my manager scheduled a 1:1 with me, and told me we needed to have a difficult conversation. He told me I was on very thin ice for reporting his manager to HR.

California is an at-will employment state, he said, which means we can fire you if you ever do this again. I told him that was illegal, and he replied that he had been a manager for a long time, he knew what was illegal, and threatening to fire me for reporting things to HR was not illegal. I reported his threat immediately after the meeting to both HR and to the CTO: they both admitted that this was illegal, but none of them did anything.”

With each HR reporting, Susan trapped herself in an increasingly difficult position because HR was building a case for the company, and not for her. The only thing Susan could do was leave Uber after one year, which is EXACTLY what HR wanted. Any HR department would prefer a disgruntled employee leaving quietly on his/her own versus having to deal with the complexities and negative ramifications of settling a legal case.

Definition of sexual harassment

Unfortunately for Uber, Susan took to the internet to air her grievances and caused a massive backlash by reviving the #DeleteUber hashtag on social media. If HR and management had properly addressed the issues earlier, Susan would never have publicly blown up the company.

If Uber is valued at ~$66 billion based on the last round of funding, this negative PR could EASILY wipe away at least $1 billion in market value as consumers switch over to Lyft or other means of ridesharing transportation. Perhaps the damage is actually much greater given a reputation takes a tremendous amount of time to rebuild.

Hiring former attorney general, Eric Holder to lead an investigation into claims of sexual harassment and discrimination is totally a PR move, and the wrong one. First, if they want to hire anybody to investigate, it should be a woman. Second, how much investigating do you really need when you can easily find out who Susan Fowler’s HR manager was who repeatedly ignored her reports? Finally, having an independent audit of HR while including the head of HR is not going to win anybody over.

See: Massive Reputation Destruction Is Why Negotiating A Severance Is Possible

Understand The Role Of Human Resources

Most employees think of HR as a department that handles the onboarding of new employees, ensures everybody plays nice with each other and helps struggling employees do better. Instead, think of HR like undercover corporate security.

Employers need workers to grow a business. But employers also realize that with each worker they hire, there’s a risk the employee might cause problems within the organization. HR is there to try and smooth things out before things reach extreme levels, e.g. settlements over lawsuits.

It is true states such as California have “at-will” employment laws, which mean a company can choose to lay off an employee whenever they want. But seldom are companies so ruthless as to lay employees off without proper documentation. Documentation is why it often takes at least one review and six months before a company will lay off any employee because if the employee ever sues for wrongful termination, the company can show they highlighted the performance issues and gave the employee a chance to improve.

The reason why Susan’s first manager wasn’t fired immediately after being reported was because he was deemed a “high performer.” Uber HR determined the manager was more valuable to the company than his transgressions. Clearly, this shows that HR is on the corporation’s side, and not on Susan’s side.

With each HR reporting, HR builds a case that Susan is a weak, easily offended employee, who isn’t willing to talk things out and play nice with others. HR can basically manipulate their interpretation of Susan’s reporting as they see fit to protect the company and its highest performers.

“The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that *I* was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making, and that if I had ever considered that I might be the problem.”

Do not think for one second that everything you reveal to HR will be kept confidential and won’t be reported to your manager or someone in a position to determine your future.

I won’t discuss details about my experience with HR when subordinates were unhappy. All I can say is that I knew what unhappy subordinates were saying to HR because HR told me. And I’m sure there are things I don’t know from HR that were told to my managers because they deemed me a liability if I knew too much.

Your Goal As An Employee

Do these simple things if you want to survive workplace politics and get ahead.

1) Read your employee handbook. I’m constantly surprised that most people have never read their employee handbook. It is loaded with great information to your benefit. If the information is in your employee handbook, that means it is gospel. HR/management cannot go back and argue against whatever thing you did if it is OK per the handbook.

2) Keep meticulous records of perceived transgressions. Document everything you think is wrong. This includes inappropriate e-mails, texts, conversations, events. But keep everything private until you really need to talk. Your highly organized documentation will serve as your ammunition during any bargaining process.

3) Build a relationship with your office HR manager. If you can get your HR manager to be on your side, you’ve got a powerful ally because she will help you navigate the land mines. It’s human nature to help people you like. HR people are no different. Take her out for coffee. Ask about her vacation. If she has a family, inquire about their health. Hopefully, you really do build a great relationship. If not, at least make it clear you are a hard working, thoughtful, and caring employee. HR does have the power to speak on your behalf and make recommendations about your future with the company.

4) Confront your oppressor and talk things out. People who oppress in the workplace are sometimes CLUELESS about their actions. Because nobody tells them they are being weird, sexist, rude, or whatever, they continue to act inappropriately because they believe whatever they are doing must be OK. One strategy is to just take them out for lunch or coffee on you. You can disarm them with your generosity, making it much easier to share what’s on your mind. Bottling things up and exploding is not healthy. And reporting your manager to HR when everything you say could get back to your manager can be a risky, career limiting move. Stand up for yourself and talk things through.

5) Know your leverage. If you’ve come to wits’ end, then leaving is probably your best option. Leaving quietly is one way to go about things. Leaving through a lawsuit is another way. But the best way is to engineer your layoff so that both parties get something, i.e. go through mediation. The reason why I was able to earn a severance and keep five years worth of deferred compensation is by knowing my leverage and having a dialogue. After 11 years at my firm, I knew that if I left, the revenue I helped generate for the firm would decline by multiples more than the cost of my employment. Therefore, I came up with a plan to transition my clients to my subordinate over a two month period to help them minimize any losses. I also made it clear to my employer that I wasn’t going to a competitor, which made negotiations much easier.

Sexual harassment at work survey
2015 German study

Things Can Usually Be Worked Out

Please think twice before firing off every transgression, perceived or otherwise, to HR. That could set you up for failure. Instead, confront your terrible co-worker and clearly delineate that which is bothering you. If that doesn’t work, speak to a manager you think you can trust to help you. Speaking to HR is sadly the last resort.

As good fortune would have it, Susan landed on her feet at Stripe, another richly valued startup. It was wise of Susan to light Uber’s barn on fire after she solidified her position. Who dares bother her now?

Recommendation If You Want To Quit Your Job

If you want to leave a job you no longer enjoy, I recommend you negotiate a severance instead of quit. If you negotiate a severance like I did back in 2012, you not only get a severance check, but potentially subsidized healthcare, deferred compensation, and worker training.

When you get laid off, you’re also eligible for up to roughly 27 weeks of unemployment benefits. Having a financial runway is huge during your transition period.

Conversely, if you quit your job you get nothing. Check out the book How To Engineer Your Layoff: Make A Small Fortune By Saying Goodbye.

It’s the only book that teaches you how to negotiate a severance. In addition, it was recently updated and expanded thanks to tremendous reader feedback and successful case studies.

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Important note: Of course not all HR professionals are considered “corporate undercover security” that only fights for senior management, and not the everyday employee. There are some great HR people out there who will fight for you and draw a line in the sand when it comes to ethical grey areas. Just realize that HR professionals are employed by your company, and therefore have their own livelihoods and careers to consider. Be careful whom you disclose information to. 

Update 2H 2021: Travis Kalanick is no longer the CEO, and there is a huge uprising against male Venture Capitalists who’ve used their powers to sexually harass and assault women founders looking for funding. I feel there is going to be immense change for the good, and I’m proud of women like Susan Fowler for speaking out. 

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