Culture matters, and that was the take-home message for many companies when the co-founder and CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, resigned under shareholder pressure last week. The Silicon Valley unicorn had been mired in controversies in recent months and everything escalated when a former engineer of the company, Susan Fowler, made public a blog post in which she documented a company culture in chaos and polluted by sexism. Along with this, Kalanick has been caught on video in a discussion with his Uber driver for the night over the company’s practices, losing his temper when the employee challenged Kalanick’s business decisions.
The day after this happened, Kalanick wrote an email to Uber’s employees admitting he needed leadership help. But how has a giant company like Uber come to all this?
Company culture crises are often the product of many small failures. Human resources is important in order to keep things in check: ineffective Human Resources is one of the most persistent problems that plague all companies, no matter what their size is. At Uber, the system that was meant to document and thoroughly investigate the claims of employees, chose to turn a blind eye in favour of a manager who allegedly produced good results. HR’s failure to provide a safe environment in which employees could report misconduct left many employees feeling unsupported. Was this the sign that something bad was going to happen? It’s possible. In fact, over the past year, fourteen executives have left Uber, including company President Jeff Jones, who said his personal approach to leadership was inconsistent with what he saw and experienced at Uber. It appears clear that one of the most famous, well-established company in the tech ecosystem really lacked company culture.
How is this even possible? Who can be blamed for this? Well, while the chief executive is often the most important player when it comes to setting the tone for a company’s culture, also the management team, the board, company executives and even shareholders and employees have a role to play. Uber has a structural problem in terms of company culture, which has ultimately led the CEO to resign.
But to better understand why all of this happened to Uber, we need to make a step back and answer a simple question: what exactly drives Company Culture?
Mostly, it’s the actions and leadership activities. At the end of the day, it’s the leadership that matters, because it sets the tone on how shareholders, employees and consumers of the product/service interpret culture and drive value for the company. A lack of structure in this terms has been poisonous for Uber in the past year. Having a company vision and mission clearly stated at the beginning of the journey helps provide a clear direction on what a purpose-driven organization needs to achieve, and it is also important to have a set of behaviours that are defined as the guiding principles. The combination of a powerful and well-defined why, what and how are the foundations for a company culture! In this terms, Uber has sadly become this month’s morality lesson on what can happen when leaders allow “toxic” behaviours to seep into an organization.
Sure, this can happen anywhere, when good behaviour is not modeled and measured. And it’s alarming. So, how can this be stopped before reaching a dangerous level?
In a digital workplace increasingly characterized by transparency, employees expect much more than a pay check and an annual satisfaction survey. Moreover, engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company – two key dimensions of thriving organizations. How is it possible that Uber have undervalued this dynamic? It’s difficult to say, but it really looks like the fascination with explosive growth at their employees’ expense has damaged the company’s brand reputation in a way the company hasn’t been able to predict.
The best way for Uber to climb back to the top starts by consulting its employees, not commanding and controlling them. Companies that are serious about employee engagement should make sure to foster a real-time participatory environment that monitor what’s important. Transparency is key!
Also, Uber should implement collaboration tools appropriate for the employee experience. The premise is to study what employees do, analyse their everyday life and observe their behaviour to collect ideas on what matters to them. Today, digital tools are redefining old hierarchies, and creating interconnected networks of smaller teams: the hierarchical approach of companies like Uber, where new ideas are ignored or criticised harshly, can lead workers to be afraid of speaking up, or to blow the whistle too loudly!
On the bright side, participatory tools for digital engagement are now enabling teams to be better attentive to employees’ input. Many products such as Facebook’s Workplace, Slack, Google G-suits can support collaborative team-centric work.
Here at Beem, we work every day to enable our clients to give their employees an easy-to-use tool to be inspired and engaged in their workday. Our clients are a living example that using a mobile tool can help opening a dialogue with employees and fostering a stronger, healthier company culture. The end result? Increased brand loyalty, higher productivity, and lower turnover rates.
Along with this, it’s vital for a big company with dispersed and on-the-go employees such as Uber to build a culture of inclusion and take it seriously, accepting the reality of unconscious bias and working tirelessly to educate the workforce on what it is and how to overcome it; listen and respond to employees, who need to be able to speak candidly about issues and feel confident that steps will be taken to resolve conflicts fairly; train all managers, because they need training to understand exactly what the organization expects of them and how to deal with difficult situations.
Companies risk their long-term success when they regard workers as replaceable resources instead of assets to be nurtured. By empowering HR to offer employees meaningful support in their career journeys, they can increase engagement and retention and avoid making negative headlines.