If Uber is such a terrible place to work, why does everyone want to work there?

The offices of Uber Technologies in Berlin, Germany.
Krisztian Bocsi | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The offices of Uber Technologies in Berlin, Germany.

In 2014, a professional who I'll call Sean, then in his late 20s and working in Europe, took his first Uber ride after a company holiday party. With a few taps, he requested a car and minutes later a Mercedes X-Class showed up. As he told me recently, his "mind was blown." The next day, he searched for job openings at the growing company, found one that matched his prior experience and applied immediately. He just had to work for Uber.

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Uber dominated headlines around the world that year for all the wrong reasons. A top competitor accused its employees of sabotage. A senior executive publicly threatened journalists who criticized the company. And multi-million dollar regulatory issues in several states and foreign countries seemed to curb the ride-hailing service's ability to grow.

Bloomberg | Getty Images

Sean knew a little about the startup's run-ins with competitors, regulators and the occasional aggressive senior leader, thanks to Google searches. But he was so confident that he wanted to work for Uber that he didn't speak to a single employee — current or ex — outside of the formal interviews before accepting his new role.

"I thought the job was a home run," he said, only agreeing to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "There are so many people who grew their careers in explosive ways at Uber."

Since Sean joined and then quit Uber, the negative headlines have only increased. There's mounting sexual harassment claims, accusations of abuse of customer data and manipulation of its drivers. One ex-product manager said employees "are in this constant state of elevated stress waiting for something bad to happen."

Yet none of that seems to have slowed Uber down as a company in demand.

This year, Uber ranks No. 5 on the LinkedIn Top Companies list in the U.S. When it comes to job applications, views on job postings and retention of new employees, Uber ranked higher than top brands like Apple, Tesla and the Walt Disney Co. If you look at the number of people Uber is poaching from other top companies, the ride-hailing Goliath is luring more than Amazon, Apple and its top competitor Lyft.

In the months after ex-employee Susan Fowler wrote an explosive blog post outlining a series of discriminatory episodes, the number of people globally viewing and applying to open roles at Uber dropped by about 15 percent. But year over year, people viewing and applying to open positions is still up by more than 35 percent, according to LinkedIn data.

What accounts for the massive gulf between a company's consumer brand and its employer brand? To find out, I spoke with human resources experts, brand gurus, communication leaders working in tech, and former and current employees at Uber and other companies with tarnished brands. What I discovered is that employees thinking somewhere is a "great place to work" has little to do with what it's actually like to work there.

Uber declined a request to comment directly on this story, but a company spokesperson said cultural changes are "well underway."

'A means to an end'

Josh Bersin has been studying employer brands for his entire career. The founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Bersin advises employers on talent management, acquisition and human resources solutions. Whether it's investment banking or early-stage tech companies, Bersin said employees know full well that the work experiences will likely be brutal, but they often choose to work in those industries to jump-start their careers.

"Most of the people who work at Uber see it is as a means to an end," said Bersin. "They want to work there because the company is well-known and will propel them to the next step."

Such was the case with a former senior leader in human resources who left Uber last fall. In his roughly two years at Uber, the HR lead helped recruit hundreds of candidates and said they were in no short supply of stellar resumes across the board. Calling his former colleagues some of the "smartest people he has ever met," he said that they were also pretty "aggressive," mostly coming from backgrounds in consulting, finance or other startups.

"People wanted to know about the work-life balance, and I would tell them it doesn't matter where you work, it's going to be worse at Uber." -former Uber HR lead

When screening prospective candidates, he would be completely honest about how challenging it could be to work there. Still, he said those warnings had little impact on his ability to attract top talent.

"People wanted to know about the work-life balance, and I would tell them it doesn't matter where you work, it's going to be worse at Uber," he said.

That brutal honesty about what it was really like to work at Uber was echoed by current employees as well. In an interview — organized by an Uber spokesperson — current engineering lead Tasneem Minadakis told me that she left her job at Yelp about a year ago because she wanted to work somewhere that was building a massive business. When she was considering her new role, she said current Uber employees couldn't have been more direct about what it really meant to sign up for a job at the growing company.

Today, when friends or former colleagues ask her to compare her experiences working at Uber to negative news coverage about the startup, her message to them is just as clear.

"Uber is not a place for everybody," she said. "If you want to feel comfortable, then you probably shouldn't come to Uber because you'll be sorely disappointed. I have been a leader for many years, this is the one place that I actually truly feel challenged."

Bloomberg | Getty Images

'Massive opportunity'

And in Silicon Valley, challenging work environments appeal to a lot of people. Several former Uber software engineers who I spoke to said that they wanted to work for Uber because they were interested in solving big problems. One engineer, who now works at Google, described the rush he got staying up for two days straight to get a codebase ready for a sudden launch in a new country.

Another said that although she was taken aback by the sheer number of hours she was expected to work, she was motivated by working on the company's first product in China, where she had grown up. Yet another found great joy in working long nights to help build the first meaningful surge-pricing algorithm that is central to Uber's business.

In a model with 20 different inputs that Deloitte's Bersin uses to measure employee engagement, he found that when employees love the work they do, they will put up with a lot of other less-than-ideal factors in the workplace.

"I would bet the people working at Uber are loving their work," he said. "It's exciting to be building the next big transportation company over there — and that attracts ambitious, driven people."

It isn't just engineers who find meaning in the challenging work at Uber. One former recruiter who mostly placed people in operating roles told me that candidates often cited the fast-paced environment as a top reason to join. The recruiter told me that it was remarkable how little prospective hires asked about what the average day-to-day life of an Uber employee was like. They just wanted to know what they'd be building.

The opportunity to work on complex and interesting problems even drove some employees to take a pay cut to join Uber. A former product lead who worked for Uber in San Francisco after getting a graduate degree from a top-tier school said the pay was "pretty unattractive," but that Uber offered her a "massive opportunity" to create something that was going to be meaningful.

Sure Uber had issues, but this was going to be an investment.

"I was focused on how big this thing could be and the major risks," she said. "I was approaching it more like a venture capitalist than someone who would actually work there."

'Build Uber 2.0'

Of course, sometimes investments go from being intelligent risks to unattractive ones. Big, hairy problems and potential upside aside, Uber has some fundamentally troubling issues facing it: A criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, a lawsuit brought on by one of the biggest tech companies in the world and the quick departure of several C-Suite executives.

At some point doesn't a company's employment brand become something you'd want to avoid? Many people told me that tipping point was exactly the time they'd want to join.

More than one person pointed me to Facebook as the canonical example. In 2007, Facebook launched a product that tracked its users' browsing activity off the social network. The technology, called Beacon, was met with outrage: Members revolted, a class-action lawsuit was filed and the Facebook brand was severely tarnished in the process.

Just four months later with the crisis still very much unresolved, Sheryl Sandberg announced that she was joining the social network as COO. Sandberg is largely credited for the success of Facebook's advertising strategy and turning the social network from a cashless startup to one of the most dominant businesses of our time.

It isn't just job-seekers in tech who think they can spot transition moments. At American Apparel in 2014, founder Dov Charney was ousted for a series of sexual harassment charges from employees. Workers told stories of Charney dancing naked in front of them and using ethnic slurs against other employees. The company's employer brand was largely in the gutter.

It was then that Craig Simmons, who previously worked in HR for companies like Nestle as well as a variety of consulting firms, signed on to be chief human resources officer. He thought he spotted an opportunity to help revive the retail chain's image that was originally founded on principles like LGBT rights and immigration reform.

And he found hiring wasn't as bad as he expected. Soon after he joined, Simmons recruited Tiffany Felix to lead global risk and facilities management reporting directly to the company's new CEO. Felix — who previously worked for Comcast and ESPN — said joining American Apparel as a risk manager at that point in the company's history was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What she was able to learn by protecting the business against future scandals like Charney's was something that no MBA and few other jobs could teach.

"I wanted to come in and do repairs and some people might shy away from that, but not me," she said. "The company may make it, or it may not, but that was an acceptable risk to me."

Several senior leaders have either left or been ousted in the fallout of Uber's multiple scandals. But Minadakis — the engineering lead based in San Francisco — said she is still at the company for the opportunity to shape what Uber will look like in the future. Pointing out that Uber's business is still growing at a record rate despite its current crises, Minadakis said she wants to become one of the leaders that helped get the company through this difficult time.

"People leave and people join," she said. "You can look at is as people leaving, but you could also see how many people are joining — especially senior leaders — because... they see this as an opportunity to build Uber 2.0."

Uber art station in Beijing.
Zhang Peng | Getty Images
Uber art station in Beijing.

'Now I know culture is everything'

This kind of pursuit of career experiences — and doing so in spite of a company's rumored culture — makes rational sense. We operate in an era where there's little expectation of job security: industries get disrupted, companies die, downsizings happen. If you're not crafting your own career path, who will? That philosophy holds true especially with high performers. Either they believe the big problems are gone or exaggerated — or are sold on their own ability to smartly steer past them.

I kept hearing that mentality from ex-Uber employees. They immediately believed they could handle anything — until they concluded just as quickly that they couldn't. In 2014 when Sean, the young recruit from Europe, joined Uber, he was the among the first 1,000 employees. Like many of his peers, he happily took a pay cut to join the growing company and was pleased with his generous equity plan. When looking over the four-year vesting schedule for his stock options, he was confident he would still be an employee by then. He didn't even last three years.

The app was available in less than 100 cities on his first day and within a matter of months that number doubled. And then it tripled. For two years, he enjoyed the fast-paced environment of a startup growing as quickly as Uber, but then a new guy with more experience came in to run his team. His boss was quick to take praise when his direct reports succeeded, but even quicker to blame them anytime something went wrong. According to Sean, he complained to HR about the situation, but nothing came of it other than his boss seeming to resent that he spoke out.

It was then, with the same assuredness that made him apply to Uber, that he knew he had to leave.

"I just didn't feel the same passion for work," he said. "Eventually my entire team left the company, but I was the first to go."

His experience is far from unique and here's where some other LinkedIn data could point to potential problems for Uber in the years ahead. Applies and job views have dropped in the last few months and tenure is low. The average Uber employee only stays with the company for 17 months, according to LinkedIn data, the lowest average tenure out of all the pre-IPO companies on our list other than WeWork, which is dealing with its own culture battle as well. The average tenure of the top four companies on our list, all much more established than Uber, is 2.5 years or more.

"I assumed a level of professionalism within the company that just wasn't there. I was a little naive about how important culture is at startups. Now I know culture is everything." -former Uber employee

Of the more than dozen ex-employees that I spoke with, none of them worked there for more than three years. The former product lead who went to Uber after finishing her graduate degree lasted less than a year before calling it quits. Describing a work environment where "people were too busy stabbing each other in the backs to get any work done," she said things came to a head when she noticed that she was being intentionally left out of important meetings.

She voiced some concerns to her manager, but they went largely unanswered. She might have gone to HR to complain, she said, but she had no idea how to contact anyone in that fledgling department nor had she ever been told what the proper procedure was to voice a complaint.

Looking back, she remembers reading a 2014 Vanity Fair article where CEO Travis Kalanick said several sexist things, but she didn't think twice about how that might impact her experience as an employee. That was a mistake, she said.

"I assumed a level of professionalism within the company that just wasn't there," she said. "I was a little naive about how important culture is at startups. Now I know culture is everything. It's more important than anything else. I think if I did a little more due diligence, I would have realized earlier it wasn't the right fit for me."

'People believed in Uber'

So far, we've left out one big, almost too obvious, driver of what makes people ignore the negative and hope for the best: the chance to win the lottery. At a nearly $70 billion valuation, if Uber ever goes public, it has the chance to make many current employees who are able to stick it out unbelievably wealthy.

The former recruiter who supported operations said he would routinely convince potential candidates to join by painting the picture of what their stock could be worth once Uber went public. For many — including himself — the allure of striking it rich was enough for them to look past pretty much anything else about the job. The recruiter assumed that he'd stay around long enough to earn his full equity in the company. But after having his first child, he could no longer justify the long hours and relatively low base pay. He left Uber after just one year.

"We would give ridiculous stock plans because people believed in Uber, the growth and the ability to return on that stock promise," he said. "Luckily for me, my wife worked, but it was tough. I started to see that I am not going to get ahead because I wasn't playing their game. I was meeting expectations, but no matter what, if you had to take a day off because your child is sick, it was frowned upon."

Just this week, Uber updated its employee stock option policy to be more friendly to longer tenured employees: For workers that last at least three years at the pre-IPO startup, they now have seven years — as opposed to 30 days — to exercise their options. Previously, if ex-Uber employees did not exercise their costly shares in the 30-day period, they forfeit the stock back to the company entirely and are left with nothing.

Still, the closer people get to the IPO date, the less likely those employees are to truly cash in. How well the company attracts and retains talent from now until the IPO — when recruiters can no longer sell a dream — is also an open question. If comparable tech companies are any barometer for what Uber has in store for it once it goes public, recruiting and retaining top talent will only become more challenging: The average tenure of an employee at Twitter who joined pre-IPO is more than double the average tenure of employees who joined after the social network went public.

And, according to our data, Twitter's ability to attract top talent went down by 14 percent in the year after its stock hit the public market.

But for now, Uber continues on its amazing ride, a magnet for bad news and a magnet for job hoppers. Even if Uber can't keep this up — and the monthly drops in applications and job views point to real hurdles — another company like it will inevitably take its place. There will always be some firm dangling big rewards — in money and experience — for the talent who can hack a challenging workplace. Someone's going to launch those groundbreaking products, rebuild that brand, cash out in that once-in-a-lifetime IPO. Why not you?

"If what energizes people is solving big problems, that is going to be the motivator... It's not going to be the media," Minadakis said. "It doesn't matter what the media says. It matters if people within the company are advocates, and if they are, others will join."

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Caroline Fairchild is a Senior Editor at LinkedIn. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here.

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