Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber, said today that he’s taking an indefinite leave of absence from leading the ride-hailing service. Whenever he returns, if ever he returns, he’ll find himself in a reduced role.
As part of its response to claims of a workplace culture that fostered sexual harassment, Uber’s board has voted to diminish Kalanick’s responsibilities and assign some duties to other members of the senior management team, including a new chief operating officer who has yet to be hired.
That was one of 47 remedial actions the board agreed to undertake following an internal report compiled by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, who had been hired to investigate allegations of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation leveled by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler.
“While change does not happen overnight, we’re committed to rebuilding trust with our employees, riders, and drivers.”
– Liane Hornsey, Uber
Holder and his firm, Covington & Burling LLP, wrote a 13-page report that recommended, among other things, that Uber hold its senior leadership team accountable for both improving diversity on staff and responsiveness to employee complaints, scrap its existing cultural values, and adopt a version of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule by ensuring that candidate pools for open positions include at least one woman and one member of a minority group.
“Implementing these recommendations will improve our culture, promote fairness and accountability, and establish processes and systems to ensure the mistakes of the past will not be repeated,” wrote Liane Hornsey, Uber’s chief human resources officer. “While change does not happen overnight, we’re committed to rebuilding trust with our employees, riders, and drivers.”
Published in February, Fowler’s blog post jarred the company and provided outsiders with a glimpse into a much criticized aspect of workplace culture in Silicon Valley. But it’s only one of many problems, self-inflicted and otherwise, that Uber has defended itself against in recent months. The Department of Justice is investigating Uber’s use of secret software called Greyball that helped the company evade law enforcement. And last month, Uber fired Anthony Levandowski, the head of its autonomous-driving unit, for failing to help the company defend itself against allegations that he stole more than 14,000 documents from Google.
In explaining his decision to take a leave of absence, Kalanick sent a memo to employees that addressed the consistent turmoil.
“If we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs.”
– Travis Kalanick
“The ultimate responsibility for where we’ve gotten and how we’ve gotten here rests on my shoulders,” wrote Kalanick, who also cited the need to grieve the death of his mother in a recent boating accident as a primary reason for stepping back. “There is of course much to be proud of, but there is much to improve. For Uber 2.0 to succeed, there is nothing more important than dedicating my time to building out the leadership team. But if we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve.”
Leaders and senior management at the company are in short supply. Beyond Kalanick’s temporary leave and the ongoing search for a COO, the company is also seeking a new president, a senior vice president, and a chief financial officer.
Underscoring the wayward course that the first Uber iteration had plotted for itself, the Holder report recommended the company eliminate elements of its “14 Cultural Values” that had been used to “justify poor behavior, including Let Builders Build, Always Be Hustlin’, Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping, and Principled Confrontation.”
With that admonishment, the report seemed to criticize not merely the confrontational style of Kalanick and the hard-charging style of Uber but perhaps the culture of Silicon Valley itself.