Uber’s latest crisis raises a key question: who does HR really work for?

Employees often think HR will act as their shield against mismanagement, but they sometimes learn painfully late that it’s not that simple

Sign outside Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco

(Eric Risberg/AP)

On Sunday, engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post detailing what she diplomatically dubbed her “strange” year working at Uber—a tenure that she says included, among other things, a) her manager propositioning her on her first day at work; and b) her repeated complaints about the incident ignored and dismissed by the company’s human resources department, under the aegis of not sullying the guy’s career for an “innocent mistake.”

The post spread quickly, enraging many high-profile commenters. The actress, author and new-media observer Felicia Day (2.94 million Twitter followers) dubbed Uber’s behaviour “Gross. Gross gross gross.” Uber backer and angel investor extraordinaire Jason Calacanis (284,000 Twitter followers) called it “obviously not acceptable.” And the public was ready to pounce: Just 24 hours after Fowler published her post, the Twitter hashtag #DeleteUber had generated almost 5 million more impressions than it did during the weekend of January 27, when masses of people started using it to protest the company’s response to a New York taxi strike and CEO Travis Kalanick’s (soon to be short-lived) participation in President Donald Trump’s tech advisory committee.

For his part, Travis Kalanick responded by calling the actions Fowler described as “abhorrent & against everything we believe in,” adding that any Uber employee condoning such behaviour would be fired. Kalanick went on to commission an “urgent” investigation into the allegations, to be headed by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and including, among others, Uber board member Arianna Huffington and the company’s chief HR officer Liane Hornsey (who has only been on the job for a few months).

Fowler’s account depicts an HR department that failed—by will, or ignorance, or both—to act in the interest of employees (yes, plural: Fowler writes that she has learned her experience was not unique). The investigation is a good first step, but it will take more than that to correct the egregious flaw at the core of the issue.

As has been pointed out by several observers of Fowler’s claims over the past few days (to the genuine surprise of many) an HR department’s primary allegiance is to the company, not to its workers. Ruth Cornish, an HR consultant, told The Guardian in 2011 that HR departments are “purely there” to protect the interests of senior management. “I have seen cases where HR staff, deemed to be too employee-focused, are actually got rid of. I’ve been in HR for most of my career and while we were very much there to help initially, that has evolved to the other extreme.” Fellow industry veteran Shannon Ford told researchers at job-search website CareerBliss—a company whose surveys have revealed that only 7% of employees trust HR—“HR’s responsibility is to the company. I have been both an adversary and an advocate for the employees, but it is always for the good of the company.”

There are plenty of good HR departments that ably serve both mandates. But that’s a tricky balance to strike, requiring a skilled, nuanced approach that is very easy to abandon when a company is in as aggressive a growth mode as Uber has been. When an organization’s culture centres around unusually high expectations for performance at a blistering pace (like, say, a ride-sharing platform endeavouring to be the last player standing in a fiercely competitive new niche) a Machiavellian “the ends justify the means” stink can pervade even those departments meant to keep things in balance.

The HR reps at Uber likely thought they were acting in the best interest of the organization. Why? Because Fowler’s complaints were about an individual who had been delivering great work. It’s yet another example of companies excusing or overlooking bad behaviour when it’s done by star performers—a too-pervasive phenomenon that we Canadians will remember from the CBC’s inaction on complaints against disgraced radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

The irony, of course, is that this type of justification doesn’t protect the employer at all, in the end. Uber is now facing a massive PR crisis, an even more massive consumer backlash and—perhaps most worryingly, for its long-term viability—an increasingly entrenched reputation as a lousy place to work. (Remember: the company is headquartered in San Francisco, where the search for tech talent is like The Hunger Games.) Let this be a lesson to HR departments everywhere (and the executives to which they report): the company does not win when bad behaviour is brushed off. Nobody does.