Uber just announced sweeping changes, including top executive changes in the company. The female engineer who first made us aware of how bad things were for women in Uber has come forward now that Uber has released a plan and said that what Uber is doing has more to do with “optics” than making real change. She is right, but even so, I doubt her views are legitimately shared with either the board or executive management. To fix an endemic problem like harassment and a lack of diversity, you have to begin with the core of the problem, and that is typically a set of entrenched behaviors that are nearly impossible to change without a strategic concerted effort.
However, it is far more common for a firm to work on mitigating the appearance of a problem rather than doing the far more difficult job of actually fixing it. Let’s use Uber as an example and walk though what it is doing wrong and how you might go about doing it right. The alternative, which remains likely, is what the New York times is advocating, a boycott on the service.
Many of the changes that were recommended should have already been in policy. Things like forbidding dating between managers and subordinates, limits on alcohol use, and full prohibition on illegal drug use during work hours apparently weren’t already policy but clearly should have been. Other changes: Employee complaints get more comprehensive handling and benefits associated with families (like leave) are improved. Even the company’s written core values were changed. All of this looks good but does little to fix the underlying problems.
Let’s look at one problem in particular. To address the diversity problem, the company will be implementing the Rooney Rule, which forces a manager to interview at least one woman and one minority before filling a job opening. So, think of how this would work. A manager who before would only interview white male candidates because he prefers them now has to do at least two more interviews with people he will only hire if it makes his department, and thus him, look better.
He doesn’t actually want the diversity so he isn’t going to work particularly hard to either select the right woman or minority employee or do anything to assure their success. We know there is a shortage of viable candidates who are women or minorities in tech companies like Uber, which means the odds are that this forced match will fail further, supporting the existing internal view that diverse employees aren’t up to the tasks assigned to them.
In the end, while the Uber board can point to what they announced and say they are making progress, the fact is they really aren’t. The same people are largely making the same decisions. They have a few extra hoops they now have to jump through, and some minor benefit improvements, and that is it. The fact that they actually needed a policy on illegal drugs suggests they have far more serious problems.
The primary goal of any for-profit company is making a profit and being financially successful. Uber isn’t doing either. Any other problem, including diversity, is ranked below this primary goal. Forcing diversity without focusing on improving the quality of the workforce is counterproductive to the primary goal and will fail. However, were the company instead to implement a formal process where a diverse panel of high-performing progressive managers selected and mentored the women and minorities who were brought into the company, this focus on success should result in a higher average of employee quality and performance in departments that took them over those that didn’t. This would force management changes in departments that were underperforming (likely due to discriminatory beliefs by the manager) and diversity change, focused on success, in the firm.
I should point out that this won’t work if Uber is using Forced Ranking. This is because Forced Ranking pits employee against employee and existing departments would likely resent an overperforming employee reducing their own performance ranking. But, over time, this would turn the minority employee placed in a department from a liability to an asset and likely change the bigoted opinions, or force those with them out of the company for the good of the company, not because of some transitory focus on diversity.
Wrapping Up: Progress over Optics
In the military, a huge effort to bring women into the military seemed to just put more women at risk of harassment or worse. If you are going to drive diversity, you have to work even harder to assure the competence of the new diverse employee so they became a positive example of change and assure their safety and success, for solid corporate profit reasons and because doing anything else would be cruel.
Until Uber works to fix the internal behavior that is at the core of its problems, real progress in making the company even a safe place to work will likely fall short. If it avoids this real work, I would expect the New York Times plan to put it out of business will take hold.
The problem with focusing on the optics, creating an impression of progress, is that a lot of folks inside the firm also think there has been progress. This puts minorities at risk, largely halts efforts that might have made real change, and pushes the bad behavior underground until it eventually will blow up again.
My view is that you either fix a problem or choose not to fix it. Focusing on optics instead of progress potentially just makes the problem worse.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+