See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil: Uber's Avoidable Nightmare

We all know the outcome of the proverbial three wise monkeys -- turning a blind eye to a situation that warrants action will never result in a positive conclusion.

Unfortunately, Uber’s approach to handling complaints of sexual harassment was “Monkey See, Monkey Do.” From what we know thus far, a number of leaders and human resources staff simply accepted the notion that since no one seemed to be addressing egregious employee behavior in the workplace, why should they?

Whether the organization is a start-up with 20 people or a larger, more mature company of 20,000, the principles around which how people treat one another and handle difficult interactions should be exactly the same. A code of reasonable and acceptable behavior is required of each employee and most importantly, for a human resources team tasked with holding the larger organization accountable for its behavior.

What prevents companies from doing this effectively?

Some organizations tend to fall back on popular defenses such as, ”we don’t have enough resources to properly train our managers.” Or, “it's so difficult to recruit for these positions, let's just give him a warning” or the perennial favorite, “we’re too small to invest in Human Resources.” 


It doesn’t take an army or a Swiss bank account to ensure there are consequences for bad behavior and that qualified individuals are in HR positions.

What can companies of all sizes do today?

First, at a very basic level, ensure the right people are leading and working within the HR organization. This specifically includes HR staff who are in business partner roles – these are individuals who work closely with employees at all levels, understand the role HR must play in the organization as a trusted confidant, coach, problem-solver, investigator and escalator when situations warrant. 

Second, have the necessary number of HR business partners to properly support the business – whether the ratio is 1:100 or 1:1000, companies need to determine how much HR support the business needs in order to achieve short and longer-term goals, as well as meet legal requirements. If your company is small, have one person (or even part of a full-time employee) be a “Responsible Business Partner“ who knows how to solve or escalate. This RBP function can be performed by a variety of individuals such as a Chief of Staff (typical position in start-ups today) or a finance manager.

Third, ensure the Human Resources leader has a direct reporting line into the CEO. This structure provides a very clear chain of command and transparent way for situations to properly escalate. Reporting into other functions, where the bad behavior is likely to be germinating, means it will be even more difficult to shed light on situations that warrant it. And, having an ill-equipped senior executive oversee this sensitive work can further inhibit the right actions from taking place. Of course, there are also strategic and organizational reasons for HR reporting directly into the CEO.

Fourth, hold everyone to the same standards of behavior regardless of individual performance, level, tenure or function. High-performing staff do not get a pass because they are driving revenue or possess critical, hard-to-recruit-for technical skills. If anything, high performers should be held to a higher standard as they set an example for others in terms of what the company values in its top performers and what it takes to be successful internally.

Finally, communicate to everyone that illegal and improper behavior won’t be tolerated and enforce crystal clear consequences for violations. Full stop. If someone in this day and age doesn’t know that propositioning a subordinate is illegal, they certainly know that it’s just plain wrong. An easy filter for “training” people is “if your sister/girlfriend/daughter was the recipient of this behavior at work, what would you personally advise her to do to stop the unwanted advances?”

In a young, high-growth organization especially, it’s easy to rationalize that “we were growing so quickly that we weren’t able to do ‘X’ because we had to make trade-offs given limited resources and time.” Having lived through several start-ups, I very much empathize with and understand that organizational tradeoffs are a part of small-company, resource-constricted life. However, if what we understand to have taken place at Uber is indeed true, it’s really quite unbelievable in 2017. Hopefully, leaders will be able to learn from Uber’s experience and proactively put in place simple and reasonable solutions to avoid such preventable monkey business from occurring in their organizations.

Karyn DetjeComment