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Uber - and how not to respond to sexual harassment

Posted by Scott M. Peterson | Feb 22, 2017 | 0 Comments

A blog post by a former employee of the ride sharing company, Uber, has been making serious waves in the news world of late.  

In the post Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the company, describes among other things her significant problems in dealing with both sexual harassment and HR/management complacency during the course of a year with the company.

Fowler describes how, shortly after starting with the company, she was propositioned - over the company chat - by a supervisor, who told her that he was in an "open" relationship, and that he was looking for women to have sex with.

Now, common sense would say that this sort of behavior is wildly inappropriate at work, and Fowler, realizing this, immediately complained to Human Resources.  The appropriate reaction would have been for HR to investigate the complaint and, if true, at a minimum severely discipline/transfer the manager and, more likely, fire him.  But that's not what happened.  Instead, Fowler was told that this was the first incident with this manager, that he was a "high performer" and that the company would not feel comfortable giving him more than a small discipline and a "stern talking to."

Of course this was not his first incident, according to Fowler, and several other women at the company indicated that they had dealt with similar conduct and had been told the same thing.

Ultimately Fowler was told that she could transfer or stay in the unit and deal with it.  She claims that she thereafter received a negative performance review, despite having high performance scores, and as a result lost her qualification from a high level computer science program at Stanford University.  She ultimately left the company.

Unfortunately the description from Fowler about being propositioned by her supervisor is not all that surprising.  What is really surprising is the response that she received from HR and her superiors.  At one point, according to Fowler, she was told by her supervisor that if she complained to HR again she would be fired.  When she pointed out that this would be illegal, he told her that California was an at-will state, and she was wrong. 

If this situation were to happen in New York Fowler would be 100% right.  Firing an employee after a complaint of sexual harassment to HR is retaliation.  But beyond that, it is absolutely crazy for a company to continue to employ an individual after that individual has faced legitimate accusations of sexual harassment on multiple occasions - especially if the company acknowledges that the actions do, in fact, constitute sexual harassment.  

We understand that in today's society companies are concerned with "high performance" - particularly in the tech industry.  But if you are a high level executive at one of these companies it would be smart to stop, pause for a moment from the non-stop growth mindset, and ask yourself which would be better: to lose a "high performer", or to face a storm on social media for failing to address a very legitimate concern in a reasonable manner.  The answer seems clear to us, and we would bet that at this point the executives at Uber would agree.

If you have questions about sexual harassment contact us today.  Or, for a confidential case evaluation, complete our employment questionnaire.

About the Author

Scott M. Peterson

Scott M. Peterson is the founding partner of D'Orazio Peterson, having left a partnership at a large regional law firm to limit his practice and focus on exclusively representing individuals in a small number of employment and serious injury/medical malpractice matters. Scott's favorite part of practicing law is getting in front of a jury and standing up for an individual against a large company or institution.

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