An Open Letter to Arianna Huffington

Dear Arianna:

I write expecting that you remain an avid reader of this publication, even though you stepped away from your leadership role some time ago.

I have no doubt that each inbox you possess gets filled each day with unsolicited opinions about every move you make. I, too, am an unsolicited contributor. But I write as a kindred spirit; a female leader who has a heart for business, a passion to see the capital markets flourish, and a desire to ensure that the investments I make (in terms of my money, time, and energy) succeed.

Like you, I have also found myself in a position – more than once – to help guide an organization that has faced the unexpected and uncontrollable landslide that comes from misconduct, scandal, and public outcry. I’ve read the news about Uber and noted the important role you play as a director and confidant to the now outgoing CEO. I’ve also read the summary report from the independent investigation commissioned by the Uber board, and I’ve empathized with the frustration that I suspect you feel.

I share your frustration because I have seen too many instances where actions taken in the name of “business risk” and “leadership decisions” have gone awry. I shake my fist at the sky when I watch the fallout that occurs because people with power have taken licenses that they should never have entertained in the first place. When it all comes apart, it is awful.

If I may, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to you and the Uber board about the way forward. My thoughts are based off my 25+ years of work with organizations that have faced similar circumstances. My suggestions are also grounded in research that the organization I lead has been conducting for more than two decades, based on input from employees in all manner of organizations around the globe.

  1. Broaden your definition of the problem. Clearly, the Uber board and senior management team must address problems of discrimination, diversity, and harassment. While these are real and important, they are not the true root cause of your current scandal, nor are those areas of emphasis the solution in the long run. Uber has an integrity problem. You can hire for diversity, instill admirable independence on the board, and replace the CEO with a rock star, however, all of these efforts will fail unless a fundamental commitment to ‘doing the right thing’ is central to the way Uber pursues business success.
  2. Establish core ethical values and make them central to operations. The 14 core values stated by Uber, including, “super-pumpedness”, and “always be hustlin", may have fueled (in an irreverent way) a successful startup, but they will not bear good fruit in an established organization with a growing employee population. Employees want to be respected as good people who can make good decisions, and as such, they want to work in a good workplace environment. Values like respect, responsibility, honesty, and courage help build and sustain a successful workplace. Ask the company to redefine its core values and establish programs to help employees and stakeholders will live them out.
  3. Insist on the establishment of a high quality ethics and compliance program. While Uber has a compliance program, which is important, compliance tells people what they cannot do. Employees want to know how the company wants them to act; what they should do. A code of conduct, training on the core values, systems for reporting wrongdoing, and communications are critical elements of an ethics program. If Uber currently has these resources in place, I’ve been unable to find them, so they are not all that transparent. That’s a mistake, because an employee in crisis isn’t going to look nearly as hard as I have. They’ll just leave the organization. Or sue you.
  4. Seek the input of Uber employees. I cannot tell you how many boards overlook the single biggest source of information that signals the success of the company: employees. My organization has interviewed and surveyed millions of employees, and I can tell you with assurance that they care about their employer. They want success for their organization overall. And to that end, they are eager to tell you about the culture of the organization and the things that will help strengthen it. Ask them. Insist that a culture assessment be undertaken.
  5. Hold people accountable. One of the biggest reasons that people don’t raise concerns – and instead undertake other actions such as posting blogs to air their issues – is that they don’t believe that the company will act. In the absence of information, they start to believe that it is useless to raise concerns. I personally applaud Uber and its investors for asking Kalanick to resign. Despite his many successes, you needed to help employees understand that there is accountability for wrongdoing. You’ve told your stakeholders that you care about the tone at the top and you won’t tolerate misconduct. Don’t overlook the need for the systems and processes to make that a consistent practice.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about gender and the workplace. After all, Arianna, we are both women trying to work in what is still predominantly a man’s world. There is so much value to women in business – our research has shown that as executives, we send a different and much needed tone from the top. We communicate better that we value our employees and stakeholders. We are tough, but empathetic, and that is the tone that helps employees come forward to signal problems ahead. Even when we aren’t in leadership positions, women are more likely to foster culture and community, and we are more likely to report wrongdoing when we see it. But there is no question, it’s tough for us. When the culture is toxic, we often become victims.

For all of those reasons I implore you to take a tough stand among your board colleagues in the days ahead. As a business executive, a leader, and as a woman, I urge you to insist on standards and systems that will make things better. I admire the position of power you currently hold at Uber. Use it for long-lasting change.

Please know that I will be cheering you on from my corner of the world.

Regards,

Patricia J. Harned, Ph.D.

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