Can Uber's culture actually change, post-bro?

Achieving culture change is about articulating what behavior you will and will not tolerate, say comms pros.

Travis Kalanick
Travis Kalanick

SAN FRANCISCO: Uber has a lot to prove to customers, employees, and the press, with comms having a key role in creating a post-bro culture.

Meg Wheaton, creative lead at Gagen MacDonald, says Uber should articulate an "intentional culture." This would entail deliberately outlining observable "behavior you expect from employees and what you will tolerate and what you will not."

"It’s the communicator’s role to articulate the values they want to achieve, identify appropriate behaviors, and create the corporate story that will bring that culture alive," Wheaton says.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán, both partners at law firm Covington & Burling, delivered a report to Uber’s board outlining their recommendations to change the company’s culture. The report was released on Tuesday.

Holder and Albarrán’s investigation started after a former engineer penned a blog about her work experience facing sexual harassment at Uber with lackluster support from HR.

The board approved the recommendations unanimously, ushering in "sweeping" changes.

Holder and Albarrán’s report named leadership as a vital area in need of reform to ensure a successful culture change. The idea was to change the tone at the top and create a trickle-down effect, supported by internal reform.

Wheaton says when companies try to turn over a new leaf, comms specialists that work in culture change have to "train and equip leaders to tell the new story and have them internalize those behaviors."

Leslie Benson, global head of the employee engagement and change communications practice at FTI Consulting, told PRWeek via email that comms should partner with HR and business leaders to facilitate a "culture by design."

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced in a company-wide email this week his intention to take a leave of absence from the company, in part to grieve for his mother, who was killed in a boating accident in March. The email was sent just ahead of the Holder-Albarrán report. In his absence, the company will be run by a 14-member committee.

"Given the CEO’s extended absence, it’s more important than ever that the leadership at all levels embodies the new behaviors they are trying to instill," says Benson, who is also a senior MD in the Strategic Communications segment at FTI.

But Chris Allieri, founder of Mulberry & Astor, says he wonders how far that trickle-down goes and whether it will impact the rank and file, especially the frontline workforce.

"It’s safe to say their drivers and frontline workforce probably won’t read it, and they have to deal with that," Allieri says. "They have to translate the report’s findings in a real, meaningful way."

The reality is, the majority of Uber drivers likely drive for other companies, he adds.

"They’re going to have to look at that workforce because that’s where the culture change comes in," says Allieri. "This is a time for Uber to get its house in order. Removing the CEO for an undetermined amount of time is a start — a full termination would’ve been better. But their next order of business is how they take their infantry of brand soldiers and get them more excited about their brand."

While Kalanick will likely be met with diminished power and a board with enhanced independence when he returns, the issue of leadership at Uber continues to crop up.

The same day Uber released its report vowing to change its culture, board member David Bonderman made a sexist remark at a staff meeting. He resigned shortly after.

Benson says only "time will tell" if Uber has the willpower to bring about a culture change in light of Bonderman’s remarks, but remains chipper on the company’s prospects.

"As long as Uber can demonstrate and maintain commitment to driving and reinforcing the correct behavior, holds senior leadership accountable for these changes, and applies the appropriate rigor in its developing culture, the company will succeed in changing," says Benson. "After all, few cultures can succeed in the absence of a powerful and distinctive vision and purpose. Uber has that in spades."

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