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Uber board director and CTO come under pressure in sexual harassment investigation

Thuan Pham, Uber
Source: Uber
Thuan Pham, Uber

Uber's investigation into former Uber engineer Susan Fowler's claims of sexual harassment and general workplace hostility at the company will conclude by the end of the month.

Key executives may come under scrutiny as part of the investigation, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. The two names we've heard time and time again: Board director Ryan Graves and CTO Thuan Pham.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his partner, Tammy Albarran, who are leading the investigation, will make their recommendations to CEO Travis Kalanick and the board at the end of May.

It's a tense time for the 12,000 or so employees who are waiting anxiously for the outcome, along with the additional stress of a massive lawsuit. Some employees who have sought positions elsewhere have been turned away because of Uber's win-all, take-all reputation, sources say.

The reasons that Graves and Pham may come under pressure are fairly straightforward.

During Fowler's tenure, Graves was the head of operations, with human resources falling under him. The head of human resources at the time, Renee Atwood, chafed at having to report to Graves, according to sources. She felt Graves wasn't equipped to handle the department, and she asked to report directly to Kalanick on several occasions.

Graves also acted as interim head of HR between the time Atwood left and before Uber hired her replacement, former Google and SoftBank veteran Liane Hornsey. It's not clear why Atwood left.

As the former head of HR, Graves could be held responsible for the way in which Fowler's allegations of sexual harassment went unchecked in spite of her repeatedly reporting these incidents to her superiors. There was no way that Graves would not have been aware of Fowler's claims, several sources say.

Uber declined to comment for this story.

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Graves, the company's first employee, has already been demoted twice. He was previously CEO, and then he stepped down from his position as president when Kalanick hired Jeff Jones from Target. Jones left the company in March.

Graves was hired almost on a lark. He tweeted at Kalanick for a position and after meeting him briefly, Kalanick decided to bring him on board.

He has already been frequently away from the office, sources say, and his absence is unlikely to have a huge impact on the day-to-day operations of the company.

Even so, Graves was known as a Kalanick loyalist, one of three key allies on the board, including Garret Camp and Arianna Huffington; though she is a recent addition, Huffington has become a key advisor to the CEO. It's unclear whether Kalanick would be willing to lose Graves's vote, particularly as the ride-hail company continues to navigate rocky waters.

That said, Graves and Kalanick's relationship had begun to fall apart recently, three sources said. Kalanick has less frequently turned to the company's first employee for help on making decisions the past year.

The company could install whomever it hires for the COO position on its board. The role is seen as a means to ameliorate its recent public relations disasters. One source said that it would certainly give off the impression publicly that the COO has real influence in the company.

Harder to lose would be Thuan Pham, the company's longtime CTO.

In Fowler's account of her year at Uber, she says that she explicitly reported the incidents of sexual harassment directly to Pham when she ran out of clear remedies. Nothing came of her attempts, she wrote.

This was confusing for many of those who served under Pham, who is generally well-liked at the company.

At a company all-hands meeting in the days after Fowler's post went viral, Pham called the way the company handled her allegations an "utter failure."

If Pham were let go, he would be the fifth C-level executive to depart since January.

Uber's head of public policy and communications, Rachel Whestone, left of her own accord in April, a month after company president Jones also resigned. VP of engineering Amit Singhal was forced out after the company learned he had been accused of sexual harassment at his previous employer without informing Uber higher-ups. And VP of operations Ed Baker stepped down after employees complained of questionable behavior on his part.

Uber has previously trotted Pham out in front of the press to highlight his story as an example of one of their key leaders overcoming adversity. A Vietnamese refugee, Pham joined Uber in 2012 after an eight-year stint at VMware. According to an interview Pham gave GeekWire, he was recruited by Benchmark partner and Uber board member Bill Gurley, who set up a meeting with Kalanick.

As a high-profile non-white engineering executive at a company that is under scrutiny for its lack of diversity among its technical employees, and as an important member of its leadership team, Pham's departure might be harder on company morale.

But it would certainly prove that Uber no longer rewards "high performers" in spite of human resources infractions.

At most other companies there would be no question that someone would have to be fired or pushed out as a result of a situation similar to Fowler's. But Uber isn't most other companies.

By Johana Bhuiyan, Recode.net.

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