First, credit where credit is due: It was Bloomberg that got hold of video of a San Francisco Uber Black driver, Fawzi Kamel, getting into an argument with the guy who is sort of his boss, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
Kalanick had been on his way to a social engagement earlier this month. After arriving at his destination somewhere downtown, he took a moment to be the Important Guy rubbing shoulders with one of the Little People who have helped Uber build a global service valued at nearly $70 billion despite astronomical losses.
Kamel complained about Uber’s cuts in rates and what he described as the company’s constantly shifting business strategy.
“People are not trusting you,” Kamel says in the video. “… I lost $97,000 because of you. I’m bankrupt because of you. You keep changing every day.”
Kalanick started out explaining that price cuts — and thus cuts in driver compensation — have been necessary because of the company’s fight with rival ride service Lyft. But as Kamel’s criticism grew sharper, he lost his temper.
“Bullshit,” Kalanick says. “You know what? Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck.”
“Good luck to you, too,” Kamel shouts. “But I know you don’t gonna go far.”
The exchange starts just after the four-minute mark of the video above and continues for about 2 minutes.
Once Bloomberg posted the video, it was Kalanick’s turn to take responsibility for his own shit. He issued a profound apology.
“By now I’m sure you’ve seen the video where I treated an Uber driver disrespectfully,” Kalanick wrote. “To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead, and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away. … I want to profoundly apologize to Fawzi, as well as the driver and rider community, and to the Uber team.”
The Kalanick video surfaces as the company faces a long run of stories that arguably place the company, never a stranger to controversy, in a harsher light than ever. Here’s a quick rundown from Bloomberg:
In December, Uber pulled its self-driving cars off the road in San Francisco after the California Department of Motor Vehicles said they were operating illegally without an autonomous vehicle license. In January, more than 200,000 people uninstalled their accounts, and #DeleteUber trended on Twitter, after the company was accused of undermining a New York taxi union strike protesting President Donald Trump’s refugee ban. On Feb. 2, Kalanick reluctantly left his spot on Trump’s business advisory council to appease the company’s liberal-leaning employees and users—not to mention its many immigrant drivers. On Feb. 19, a former software engineer at Uber wrote a blog post alleging that she had been propositioned for sex by her manager and that when she’d taken the issue to human resources, an HR rep had said that he wouldn’t be punished, in part, because he was a “high performer.” On Feb. 23, Alphabet’s autonomous car company Waymo sued Uber and its self-driving car company Otto, accusing an Uber employee of stealing trade secrets by downloading 14,000 files onto an external hard drive. On Monday, Uber’s head of engineering resigned after the company said it learned that he had faced a sexual harassment complaint at Alphabet, his former employer. He denied the allegations.
The sexual harassment and discrimination allegations alluded to above, by engineer Susan J. Fowler, describe an unapologetic culture in which Uber’s HR department appeared to actively abet a male employee who had approached her and other female workers for sex. Fowler’s account prompted the company to retain former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an investigation, along with the head of HR, Liane Hornsey, and board member Arianna Huffington.
Fowler’s charges also led Kalanick to declare, “I believe in creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do. … It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice.”
Two people who say they’re not impressed by the promise of an investigation are early Uber investors Mitch and Freada Kapor.
In their own blog post, they argue that the promised investigation is hardly independent. Holder and his law firm have been lobbying on behalf of Uber since last June, they say, and Huffington and Hornsey are company insiders.
More damning, the Kapors says, the Fowler allegations and the company’s response appear to repeat earlier behavior:
Silicon Valley prides itself on pattern recognition (often the umbrella under which all sorts of bias lives, but we digress) which supposedly helps them recognize the next Unicorn.
Here are a couple of toxic patterns we have observed:
Uber has been here many times before, responding to public exposure of bad behavior by holding an all-hands meeting, apologizing and vowing to change, only to quickly return to aggressive business as usual.
Investors in high growth, financially successful companies rarely, if ever, call out inexcusable behavior from founders or C-suite executives.
Both of these patterns need to change. Uber’s outsize success in terms of growth of market share, revenues and valuation are impressive, but can never excuse a culture plagued by disrespect, exclusionary cliques, lack of diversity, and tolerance for bullying and harassment of every form.
“Culture of disrespect.” You wonder what the Kapors make of the new Kalanick video.
As part of his public apology, the Uber CEO says: “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.”
“Leadership help”? You mean something like this?