Back in January 2015, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Ontario Ombudsman’s “Sharpening Yor Teeth” training program for administrative watchdogs. I’ve long been a fan of the Ontario Ombudsman’s Office’s work – from their meta-investigation of the Ontario Special Investigations Unit (itself a watchdog which investigates police misconduct), to the reforms they engendered in the lottery and gaming system, to their work on expanding access to vital cancer medications. I’m a bit of a nerd about this stuff — I’m pretty sure I was the only attendee who was there out of my own interest, rather than on behalf of an employer.
One of the key roles of an Ombudsman is to identify when issues are systemic rather than one-off cases. Australia’s Financial Ombudsman Service has a succinct definition of systemic issues — they are those which “will have an effect on people beyond the parties to a dispute.” The training I attended included a couple of hours on this topic, and a rubric for evaluating issues that came in through the triage process to determine whether or not they represented potentially systemic issues.
With this context, I was shocked to see the confidence with which Uber board member Arianna Huffington declared that the company’s sexual harassment issues were not systemic. If you haven’t seen it already, watch this interview with her. It’s… honestly just appalling. She claims to have talked to “hundreds” of women at Uber, and when asked at the end if there is anything that would make her consider that Travis isn’t fit for the job, her answer is a clear “no”.
It is deeply inappropriate for Huffington to be making this assessment before the investigation that she’s overseeing (but ostensibly not part of?) is completed. Based on what’s been reported in the press, and what friends have been saying behind closed doors for years, I feel confident in saying that she is wrong to be drawing that conclusion at this juncture. She is also undermining any chance of credibility that the actual investigation has, by conflating her own… research? meddling? whatever she’s doing… with the investigation itself.
But you don’t need to just listen to me. To confirm my gut feeling, I decided to apply the Ombudsman’s rubric to what is known about the situation at Uber. The parts in bold are more or less verbatim from the course notes; there isn’t a copy online, but there’s a shorter version in an essay by the former Ombudsman at this link. Or if you’ve got CAD$124 burning a hole in your pocket, you may be interested in “Conducting Administrative, Oversight & Ombudsman Investigations,” but you’re probably not as much of a weirdo as me and therefore haven’t asked for that book for your birthday. ANYWAY, on to the rubric:
Lots of ink has been spilled on Uber’s gender issues both before and in the wake of Susan Fowler’s post. Joey deVilla has an extensive and colourful roundup of the history of Uber’s malfeasance, gender and otherwise, here.
Does the case have systemic implications?
Some of the factors to consider in determining if an issue has systemic implications or not are:
- Are there a number of similar complaints? We have Fowler’s account, and, well, real talk here – the Silicon Valley women’s backchannel has had stories like hers going around for years. I don’t know of a single woman engineer who was surprised by Fowler’s story – what many were surprised by was that anyone listened this time.
- Are there obvious systemic issues? HR’s (mis)handling of Fowler’s complaints just screams “obvious systemic issues” to me.
- Does the issue encompass a range of policies/processes? At a rough guess, I’d say – HR, recruiting, engineering management – so yes.
- Does it affect a lot of people? It certainly sounds like it has both within Uber as an organization and also outside – there are plenty of stories going around about crappy, biased engineering recruiting experiences at Uber. And that’s without even touching on how they treat drivers, or passengers who’ve had issues with sexual harassment/assault by drivers. So yes.
Is the issue sensitive and/or high-profile?
This is an easy one. A Google News search for “uber sexual harassment” returns nearly half a million results. Definitely high-profile.
Is an investigation in [the organization’s] interest?
In the Ombudsman’s rubric, this question is asked about the public interest rather than the organization’s interest – I’ve modified the rubric a bit to apply to a private entity. Factors to consider in determining interest include:
- Is the alleged injustice so egregious (on the face of it) that an investigation is
clearly necessary? I’d say yes, here.
- What other organizations are involved or investigating? I expect that entities such as the EEOC have this issue on their radar, and they definitely will if employees file formal complaints.
- Is it a matter of public discussion? Yup we’ve definitely got that one covered, that’s for sure.
- Will the case likely result in significant recommendations for change if the
complaint is substantiated? The HR processes that Fowler describes are profoundly broken and indicate substantial failures in organizational leadership. I’d sure hope that it becomes clear that significant change is needed.
Will the fact-gathering process be complex or protracted?
This is the one where Huffington’s statements really fall on the floor, as her rush to judgement makes it clear that either any investigation that’s taken place so far has been utterly biased (not that this is going to surprise anyone) or that she’s quite simply talking out of her posterior. Some factors that lead to thinking this needs to be treated as a systemic issue include that there are clearly facts in dispute, many potential witnesses will need to be interviewed, and many documents need to be assessed – starting with the entire record of Fowler’s correspondence with HR. And finally, multiple parts of the Uber organization need to be involved (HR and engineering management, to start with).
Will the investigation be a judicious use of resources?
This is less of an issue for a billion-dollar “unicorn” startup than it would be for a resource-constrained public service Ombudsman’s office. Uber has millions in the bank, and can easily afford a proper independent investigation. The cost of not properly investigating could potentially include: additional sexual harassment lawsuits down the road that could have been prevented, responding to independent investigations from organizations such as the EEOC or Department of Justice, an inability to hire engineers and other key employees, and the harm to current and former Uber employees’ career prospects as Uber becomes a toxic stain on their resumes.
Is there any potential to resolve the issue(s) informally?
It is clear from Fowler’s post that she made heroic efforts to have her mistreatment addressed through appropriate, pre-existing formal channels. Since it is amply evident that that didn’t work, informal resolution isn’t appropriate in this case.
Based on the Ontario Ombudsman’s rubric, the gender issues at Uber clearly meet the bar for a potential systemic issue worthy of deep investigation. In cases like that, a truly independent investigation is in order — not one conducted by a board member who has spoken dismissively of the issues. Last summer in our No More Rock Stars post about fighting systemic abuse in tech organizations, Valerie, Mary and I wrote that combating abuse in organizations requires “[starting] with the assumption that harassment reports are true and investigat[ing] them thoroughly“, and Huffington’s dismissal of Fowler’s complaint as a non-systemic issue violates that principle. The principle is not about “assuming guilt” but about thoroughness. It is about diligent, methodical, rigorous follow-up. Which I wholeheartedly hope Eric Holder’s investigation will involve, although I’ll be skeptical until I see it.