Uber's biggest employee problems are pay and pride, not sexism, says HR boss

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After nearly five months of digging into Uber's internal culture, its new chief human resources officer says the ride-hailing company's treatment of women — which gave it a public black eye after charges of persistent sexism and discrimination were detailed by a former employee — is no worse at Uber than at other companies.

"Wherever I have worked, I have seen things that are not great for women," Liane Hornsey told USA TODAY as she awaits the imminent release of an internal investigation into Uber's culture spurred by the revelations of former engineer Susan Fowler. Hornsey says she hasn't been privy to that investigation, helmed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

"I worked in entertainment for six years," said Hornsey, whose resume includes stops at BMG Music, Google and Softbank. "I don't think it's about tech, or this city or this company. I think it's about the world of work, and I think that it's something that we have to take really super seriously."

Hornsey, who started at Uber on Jan. 3, has conducted more than 200 separate "listening tour" sessions since February to get a handle on the company's biggest HR problems.

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But she says the issue of sexual harassment as described in a Feb. 19 post by Fowler, who notified Uber's human resources about sexual advances from her boss but was told he could not be disciplined because he was too valued by the company, has not surfaced.

Instead, employees have been more rankled by compensation issues (the start-up, valued at $69 billion, has held off an IPO), the performance review process, and a feeling that Uber doesn't fully appreciate them.

"They need more love and respect from the company," she said. "That's my sense of what's wrong."

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Hornsey acknowledged that while public sessions are not conducive to sharing sensitive information, she has also received several hundred private emails and met one-on-one with 50 employees. The company also offers its 12,0000 global employees, 36% of whom are women, access to an anonymous hotline.

"(Fowler's) blog shocked me," she said. "But, what did surprise me, was when I did the listening sessions, this didn't come up as an issue. It wasn't one of our big themes. Other things came up that are in that area, that our values are masculine and a little aggressive, but the harassment issue, I just didn't find that at all."

This assessment is a milder expression of Uber's cultural issues than those voiced by some of Uber's own executives in the wake of Fowler's blog post, which detailed how other female engineers had shared similar stories of harassment.

CEO Travis Kalanick teared up at the company's all-hands meeting shortly after the blog published, calling Fowler's experience at the company "abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in." He later told a meeting of female engineers they had experienced "things that are incredibly unjust," according to an audio recording of the event.

Chief technology officer Thuan Pham called the Fowler incident an "utter failure," even though Fowler cites him as unresponsive to her complaints in her blog post.

Kalanick has not publicly addressed charges of sexism at the company. After the release of a dash cam video that showed Kalanick berating an Uber driver, he said he must "fundamentally change as a leader and grow up." A COO search was launched.

Some in the tech community have been openly skeptical of Uber's commitment to change. After Fowler's post, Uber investors and longtime diversity advocates Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein wrote an open letter on Medium, noting that "Uber has been here many times before, responding to public exposure of bad behavior by holding an all-hands meeting, apologizing and vowing to change, only to quickly return to aggressive business as usual."