Uber is quickly responding to serious allegations that sexual harassment was condoned in its San Francisco headquarters. In a blog post this weekend, former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler recalled a male supervisor making sexual advances toward her, and getting away with it.
When Fowler reported his behavior to Uber's HR department, she was told to find another place in the company, and to expect a poor performance review. Fowler has since left Uber.
Almost immediately, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick denounced the idea that sexual harassment was permitted within the company. In a memo to staff Monday night, Kalanick said that an "independent review" into Fowler's allegations would be swiftly conducted.
On the review team are: Uber Board of Directors member Arianna Huffington, Uber Chief Human Resources Officer Liane Hornsey, and Uber Associate General Counsel Angela Padilla. The investigation will be led by former US Attorney General Eric Holder, and Tammy Albarran, both partners at the law firm Covington & Burling, for whom Uber has been a client.
No stranger to Silicon Valley, Covington & Burling has become an oft-tapped resource for tech companies eager to influence policymaking. Last year, Holder advocated against fingerprinting Uber drivers as a safety measure, on the basis that it could unfairly target black or Hispanic men. Former Covington & Burling staff have also been hired by Uber, and are present on its board.
Uber insists that an independent review can be conducted without bias by these individuals.
However, Uber management and board members might be disproportionately concerned with the company's well-being. The fact that an HR officer is being allowed to participate in an audit of her own department is concerning. Even Holder, who's technically a contracted advisor here, could introduce an unconscious bias to the review because of his history with Uber.
I asked Uber which criteria it used to assemble the review team; Why it didn't opt for reviewers with no prior relationship to Uber; How, exactly, it plans to ensure the review is conducted fairly; And how transparent it intends to be about the review's methodology and findings.
Two Uber spokespeople declined to comment.
I reached out to Covington & Burling with the same questions but did not immediately hear back.
"Travis spoke very honestly about the mistakes he's made—and about how he wants to take the events of the last 48-hours to build a better Uber. It was great to see employees holding managers accountable. I also view it as my responsibility to hold the leadership team's feet to the fire on this issue," Huffington said in a statement today after a staff meeting.
"Change doesn't usually happen without a catalyst. I hope that by taking the time to understand what's gone wrong and fixing it we can not only make Uber better but also contribute to improvements for women across the industry."
It's entirely possible that despite being paid to review Fowler's allegations, and despite having previously represented Uber's best interests—in the case of fingerprinting drivers, Uber ultimately held that "no background check is perfect"—Holder will remain impartial. Let's hope so!
But to ignore the opportunity, no matter how small, for unconscious bias is a disservice to Fowler and every other Uber employee.
Uber is in damage control mode right now because a former employee accused the company of rigging its internal review process against women who complained about sexual harassment (and other forms of discrimination). The internal review process they offered in response to these accusation doesn't really inspire confidence, since all parties previously worked with Uber's best interests in mind.