Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick is taking a leave of absence from the head of his company as the bad news around the ride-hailing service continues to pile up. Kalanick's leave of unspecified length comes at a critical time for Uber, and at a tragic personal moment for the CEO — his mother died in a boating accident and was buried on Friday. Given everything that's going on, he says he is taking some time "to reflect, to work on myself, and to focus on building out a world-class leadership team."
Kalanick has his work cut out for him. Uber has been plagued for the past several months by allegations of sexism and harassment throughout the entire company, targeting government officials to avoid authorities in major cities and even entire countries, and even obtaining the confidential medical records of a woman who claimed to have been raped by an Uber driver. The turmoil prompted Uber to launch an extensive probe, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that has so far resulted in more than 20 firings and still has more than 100 other employees under investigation. Holder's investigation also provided a number of recommendations for Uber, including protocols for HR complaints and bringing transparency and continuous feedback to the employee review process.
But the probe's house-cleaning isn't the only staffing problem facing Uber. A number of high-level executives have departed the company in recent months — some due to their own misconduct or turning of a blind eye to said misconduct — others have decided that they're not interested in going down with the ship. With Kalanick's leave of absence, Uber is now a company without a permanent CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, or SVP of Engineering, along with several other empty desks with varying levels of VP assigned to them.
While purging the bad apples is the start to improving a toxic corporate culture, it's only the start. Uber's new hires will have to set the example for what Kalanick and the Uber board want to see from the company and its employees, and any residual toxicity will have to be stamped out with impunity. Uber has been revealed to be the poster child of the Silicon Valley "bro culture", and fixing that starts with admitting that bro culture is not okay, whether you're a garage start-up or an 8-year-old company with $6.5 billion in revenue and 12,000 of employees and even more drivers. In fact, accepting that Uber clearly isn't a start-up anymore is probably the start of moving away from the adolescent attitudes that pervade the Valley.
And while the corporate culture is fixed, so too will Uber's public image need rehabbing. They've already made a few steps in that direction, including hiring former Apple Music marketing chief Bozoma Saint John as the new Uber Chief Brand Officer. While Uber's the highest profile incident of revealed skin-crawling practices and attitudes, this is far from the biggest catastrophe for a corporation to survive. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill dumped nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating swaths of ocean and shoreline, and cost BP $18.7 billion in fines. BP is still around.
There's also the nature of Uber from the customer's perspective. Most users have been obtained via word of mouth and their interactions with the company are entirely with Uber's on-demand contract drivers. Few ever communicate with Uber corporate, and when they do it's to solve a problem with a drive. Uber's problems are almost entirely internal and cultural, which is harder to visualize on the evening news than a massive oil spill or a train crash or the dollar signs that accompany a massive bankruptcy.
It's worth noting that Kalanick is not above the fray here. He's been personally implicated in encouraging and perpetuating the frat-house culture of Uber. In one example, a memo sent out before a full-company party in Miami, Kalanick laid out a number of rules for the party. Okay, that's fine, right? Not when you have to advise your partying employees about drug use, throwing kegs off rooftops, and that you should obtain emphatic consent before having sex with a fellow employee (and that you shouldn't work in the same chain of command). In February, Kalanick had to publicly apologize after video surfaced of a shouting match he had with an Uber driver over driver rates and Uber's future.
Kalanick said at the time, "The criticism we've received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I've been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it."
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Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm, and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.
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