Uber’s sexual harassment case shines light on a startup’s culture of defiance

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Uber’s sexual harassment case is the latest controversy in a long history of the ride-sharing company flouting regulations and, according to the company’s critics, ignoring ethical and legal standards in the name of “disruption”.

    The San Francisco-based technology corporation is facing a widespread backlash after a former engineer went public with her story of sexual harassment and discrimination by management and repeated rebuffs from the HR department, adding fuel to the #DeleteUber campaign that went viral last month. The company has hired former US attorney general Eric Holder to investigate the claims.

    Consumer activists and social justice organizers, who have pushed for stricter regulations of Uber, point to the scandal as another example of the company’s disdain for business norms.

    From questionable labor practices to privacy concerns to flagrant rejections of transportation laws, Uber has built its service through a culture of defiance that opponents say stands out even in Silicon Valley, where rule-breaking under the guise of innovation is commonplace.
The wave of negative publicity that peaked last month stemmed from a user boycott over CEO Travis Kalanick’s brief participation in Donald Trump’s economic advisory council. But long before the #DeleteUber campaign and gender discrimination case, Uber has battled frequent accusations of ethical misconduct.

    “You just see this pattern of arrogance that says, ‘We can do whatever we want and get away with it,’” said Orson Aguilar, president of the Greenlining Institute, an economic justice organization that has been critical of Uber’s move to Oakland. “We definitely see Uber as a bottom-feeder of the tech industry when it comes to issues of fairness and equity.”

    Uber’s business and profits are dependent on its classification of drivers as independent contractors as opposed to employees, a major source of contention among labor organizers. While critics have argued that Uber should provide basic employee protections and rights to drivers, Uber has claimed that its services are part of the so-called sharing economy.

    Unlike its competitor Lyft, Uber has also rejected pleas to add a tipping feature to its app, which drivers said has made it even harder for them to earn a decent wage. The company has argued that tipping should not be required or expected so that the experience is “hassle free” for passengers and so both parties know the cost of a trip upfront.

    “I don’t know any drivers who feel that Uber cares about their drivers, so why would they care about their employees?” said Jim Lesondak, a 59-year-old California resident who drove for Uber for several years and recently quit. “Their attitude is they are above the law or above reproach.”

    Around the country, Uber has also aggressively resisted regulators’ efforts to force the company to follow the rules that govern traditional cab companies, and some say the consequences for public safety have been severe.
Lawsuits filed against the company allege that Uber’s lack of traditional background checks and fingerprinting of drivers have enabled drivers to sexually assault passengers. Uber has settled cases without admitting wrongdoing and has repeatedly argued that its screening of potential drivers is sufficient. The company has also said it is not liable for the actions of “contractors”.

    When an Uber driver killed a six-year-old girl in San Francisco, the company claimed it was not at fault since he was not carrying a passenger at the time, even though the victim’s family said the driver was using the Uber app and looking for rides when the collision happened.
Uber’s rule-breaking mentality has extended to alleged abuses of users’ privacy, according to numerous reports. The company’s former forensic investigator recently testified that employees regularly used the corporation’s “God view” to spy on the movements of politicians, celebrities and ex-partners.

    In 2014, Uber’s head of business also suggested the company dig up dirt on critical journalists, suggesting that reveal details of the personal life of a specific female journalist. Around the same time, a manager was also accused of tracking a different reporter’s movements through the app.
Last year, Uber also sparked an outcry from government officials and consumer groups when it launched self-driving cars in California without proper permits and blatantly ignored demands to halt the program despite clear evidence of traffic violations. The company said it did not believe that state laws applied to its autonomous vehicles and eventually moved its fleet to Arizona where it did not face regulatory hurdles.

    “Like many Silicon Valley companies, they say, ‘We’re supposed to be disruptive and better to ask for forgiveness than permission,’” said John M Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog and frequent critic of the company. “With Kalanick and Uber, they have sought forgiveness one too many times.”

    Given the corporation’s history, critics who have scrutinized Uber said it was not surprising to learn that the $68bn company allegedly has a management team and HR department that ignored formal complaints of harassment, protected a repeat offender and threatened to fire a woman for speaking up.

    Unlike Apple, Google, Facebook and other major tech corporations, Uber has also long refused to disclose data on the diversity of its workforce. In a staff email on Monday, Kalanick revealed that women made up only 15% of the company’s workforce in engineering, product management and scientist roles. But the CEO did not provide statistics on the number of women in senior positions or any data on racial diversity.

    Kalanick has also faced criticisms for sexist remarks in the past, including a joke in a GQ interview about “women on demand”, where he said: “We call that Boob-er.” The company has further faced backlash for misogynistic ads.

    Although Kalanick has brought on Holder and Uber board member Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington Post, to investigate the sexual harassment claims alongside a new HR executive, critics have called for a fully independent inquiry.

    “HR departments are there to protect the company as opposed to protecting the employee,” Lesondak said.

    Aguilar said it seemed clear that Uber was most concerned with responding to bad press that could hurt its profits. Kalanick stepped down from Trump’s advisory council after several days of the #DeleteUber campaign.

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