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Fix the toxic culture, kill Greyball and 5 other things Uber's future COO must do

Travis Kalanick
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Travis Kalanick

Travis,

I hear you are seeking a COO, a peer who can partner with you to write the next chapter in Uber's journey. I applaud this. Uber's culture is broken and you need help to fix it.

In case you don't know who I am, I'm the one who called BS on your sexual harassment facade last week.

I made the case that zero-tolerance harassment policies aren't rocket science and told you to wake up and take a lesson from those of us in tech who have gotten harassment in the workplace right for decades.

Thousands of people have responded to this rallying cry. They've asked me to lay out a specific plan. What would I recommend companies who suffer like Uber do? And, since you are seeking a COO, I figure there's no time like the present.

"Your current core values have created a toxic, backstabbing, harassing environment. They must be changed. Core values are not fluffy plaques to hang on the wall. Core values are the real deal."

So, now you know who I am. Do I want to be Uber's COO? In truth, I'm taken. Being the founder and CEO of Stride is my dream job.

However, it's clear you need help. So, the least I can do is tell you what I would do as Uber's COO. (For what it's worth, this advice is based on experience. I've run 4 successful startups using these strategies.)

Step 1: Change Uber's core values

Your current core values have created a toxic, backstabbing, harassing environment. They must be changed. Core values are not fluffy plaques to hang on the wall. Core values are the real deal. They are the small set of your non-negotiables. They are the things you fire employees, vendors and partners for. They are the things you are willing to lose money over.

It's not enough to "create" core values. You must "live" them, starting with the executive team:

  • Hold every executive and every employee accountable for living the core values.
  • Reward role models. At Stride, we give quarterly Stridees — awards given to employees who have displayed outstanding behavior aligned with our core values.
  • Fire employees, vendors and partners who fail to uphold the core values.

Step 2: Kill Greyball

Greyball has been used for years to evade authorities in cities where Uber has been banned or resisted. It's got to go, along with any other unethical tools you currently have in the works.

Step 3: Adopt a zero-tolerance harassment policy and fire offenders

Make Uber a safe place to work. This will in turn make Uber a great place to work. Do this by getting rid of the bad eggs:

  • Write up a Zero-Tolerance Harassment Policy and add it to your Employee Handbook.
  • Swiftly deal with each harassment case one by one. Each single incident of harassment that gets brought up with HR needs to be a top priority. Each incident must be investigated the day it is revealed. Not over time, not next week. Today.
  • Upon confirming harassment, the individual who conducted the harassment must be fired immediately. Not next week. Today.

Confirming harassment can be complex. Sometimes you can find hard evidence like an email, video or a witness. Sometimes hard evidence doesn't exist and a thorough investigation is warranted. Regardless, you must find out the truth and get to the bottom of each incident.

Step 4: Hire a strong head of HR and an employment lawyer and educate employees
Your employees are confused. Some are scared. Uber needs to become a place where everyone feels safe. Where everyone feels equal. Hire a strong head of HR and an employment lawyer. Educate employees and investigate harassment cases inside the company. Above all, treat all employees equally, regardless of their rank or influence inside Uber.

Step 5: Fire or PIP each manager and HR employee who turned a blind eye
This is a tough one. You have a systemic culture problem. A big one. There are likely many inside Uber who went along with something unethical because 'that's the way things are done around here'. That ends today.

Managers and the entire HR team are each responsible for the actions of their team and of the company. For the truly bad eggs, fire them. For folks you want to give a chance, put them on a PIP, a Personal Improvement Plan. Create a set of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals for each person. Give them 90 days and a lot of support. They either shape up or ship out.

Step 6: Shift focus from individual productivity to team productivity
Uber's dog-eat-dog mentality is a house of cards, and it's crumbling. Individuals clawing their way to the top without regard for teamwork or human decency can only last so long. Shift Uber's focus from individual productivity to team productivity. Take a lesson from Google — they spent tons of cash to figure out why some teams thrive while others falter. Hint — it's not the teams with the self-serving assholes that win.

Once you fire the harassers, and put the offenders on a PIP, the rest of your employees are going to be looking for solid leadership and clarity around direction. Shifting to team productivity is going to take a long time, yet it's critical.

Step 7: Change your recruiting process
Once steps 1–6 are done, you can begin to rebuild your employee base. Revamp your recruiting practices to be gender balanced. There are three simple things you can do relatively quickly that will have a significant impact that I detailed in my blog last week.

So there you have it. Seven steps that have the potential to rewrite Uber's mark on history. These steps will be hard to do well. They will cost the company money. And yet, they must be done.

Travis, you and I both know that a true plan to save Uber from the inside out will take more work than words on a page. Yet, it's got to start somewhere.

I'm happy to go over these steps in detail with you. If you reach out, I will take your call.

Commentary by Debbie Madden, the founder and CEO of Stride, an Agile software development consultancy in New York. Stride embeds small, seasoned teams of Agile experts to code alongside tech teams and teach them how to improve their business through software. With a reputation as a passionate woman executive in technology, Debbie is a sought after writer and speaker. She has appeared in popular media outlets such as Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter at

This commentary originally ran on Medium.com.

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