Uber cleans house to repair its tainted brand image

Twenty firings, one important hiring, and a hotline for employee complaints: Uber works toward improving its corporate culture after allegations of harassment. 

Toby Melville/Reuters
The Uber app logo fills the screen of one user's mobile telephone in central London on October 28, 2016.

Uber, the world's leading ride-hailing company, has taken two big steps toward repairing its corporate image: It fired 20 employees for a host of harassment problems and hired an Apple marketing executive to rescue its tainted brand.

Those fired for sexual harassment as well as bullying, discrimination, and other behavior that violated company policies included both managers and lower-level workers. Some had retaliated against other employees after they complained about bad conduct, said Bobbie Wilson, a partner at the Perkins Coie law firm, which did the investigation.

Separately, Uber announced Tuesday that it had hired Apple marketing executive Bozoma Saint John, who will be Uber's chief brand officer. She ran global consumer marketing of Apple Music and iTunes. Her task at Uber will be to improve its brand image so people like it as well as they like the company's ride services, an Uber spokeswoman said.

"Boz has a long track record of successfully creating emotional connections between people and the products they love," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a statement.

More action could come next week when a report on Uber's culture by former Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to be made public. He is supposed to make broader recommendations on how to change Uber's culture.

During Uber's ascent to becoming the world's most valuable startup, the San Francisco-based company took Silicon Valley's penchant for sexism, for cutthroat, unapologetic competition, and distaste for government regulation and kicked it up several notches.

For a while, this worked well, pushing Uber's valuation to nearly $70 billion. But this year, Uber's aggressive corporate culture and Mr. Kalanick's self-admitted need to "fundamentally change and grow up" has caught up with it.

In addition to the sexual harassment allegations, Uber is the target of lawsuits, boycott threats, and a federal investigation into claims that it has used a fake version of its app to thwart authorities. It's also been accused of corporate espionage by Waymo, formerly Google's autonomous vehicle arm. Uber's former chief autonomous car researcher took confidential documents from Waymo before his startup firm was purchased by Uber, according to a Waymo lawsuit.

Uber also is searching for a chief operating officer and chief financial officer as it prepares for a possible public stock offering.

Uber Technologies Inc. retained Perkins Coie after former engineer Susan Fowler posted a blog in February about sex harassment at the company. Ms. Fowler wrote that on her first day at work her boss propositioned her in a series of messages and superiors ignored her complaints.

After the posting, Uber set up a 24-hour hotline to take complaints from employees, and hired Perkins Coie to investigate them. The firm checked into 215 complaints, and 57 remain under investigation. The hotline will remain in operation.

The probe into Fowler's complaints is still underway, and Ms. Wilson wouldn't say if any of those fired, or 31 other employees placed in counseling, were involved in that.

Wilson said Uber gave her law firm "unfettered access" to people and documents that were needed for the Fowler investigation.

Problems at Uber are not unusual in the technology industry, given the company's size of more than 14,000 employees, said Wilson, whose firm has done similar work for the biggest tech companies in the nation.

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