There’s really only one reason to believe that Uber will conduct a thorough and fair investigation into sexual discrimination inside the company. That reason is Eric Holder.
This week, the ride-hailing company hired the respected former attorney general, now a partner at Washington law firm Covington & Burling, to investigate claims of sexual harassment levied by Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer.
According to a blog post Fowler published Sunday, her complaints about mistreatment ― she was sexually propositioned by a colleague on Day 1 of her job ― were mishandled or ignored by Uber at every turn. At one point, her manager even threatened to fire her for raising concerns, she said.
There was no way, based on how much attention Fowler’s post got ― and how inept Uber comes across ― that the company could’ve handled this without outside help. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has made crass comments about women and has ignored safety concerns of female customers. What’s more, Uber has made a name for itself by fighting off the idea that it needs to support most of its workers, claiming in court that its drivers are private contractors, not real employees requiring benefits or support.
Enter Holder. The 66-year-old has become sort of an Olivia Pope-style fixer for Silicon Valley startups with diversity problems. This is the second time in less than a year that a high-profile tech company has hired him to conduct an internal investigation.
“It is up to Uber and Holder and his team about how serious they want to take this investigation,” Peter Romer-Friedman, counsel at the employment-law firm Outten and Golden, who works on discrimination cases for plaintiffs, told HuffPost. “These are very serious allegations; it really seems like Uber’s management doesn’t have a basic understanding of how employment discrimination laws work.”
AirBNB hired Holder and another prominent civil rights lawyer in June to investigate racial discrimination in the way the travel site operates ― behavior that was detailed in a research paper by Harvard economists and then confirmed by AirBNB customers.
The company made the results of the investigation public in September, and has begun implementing real changes ― including an instant booking system that elides the race of the customer entirely. AirBNB says this will help fix its issues, though critics are dubious.
The question with Uber is whether it will it follow AirBNB’s lead. An Uber spokesperson said it’s too early in the investigation to say. “We’re taking it day by day,” the spokesperson said.
It’s easy to see Uber’s hiring of Holder as a pure publicity stunt. Bringing in a well-respected lawyer with a track record of fighting for civil rights is a way for Uber to quickly signal its intention to do something about what appears to be not only rampant sexual discrimination, but also broken human resources and legal departments that utterly failed.
Companies and high-profile organizations often bring in high-profile former public officials to conduct investigations in the wake of a publicity fail. Penn State hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate child sex-abuse charges against its Jerry Sandusky, a high-profile football coach who’s now behind bars. The school made the report public.
Fox News brought in a top New York law firm to investigate sexual harassment charges against CEO Roger Ailes last year, leading to his ouster. The report was kept private. General Motors hired a former U.S. attorney to look at its handling of a defective ignition switch and made that report public.
CBS in 2004 hired a former attorney general and the retired head of The Associated Press to investigate a flawed “60 Minutes” report on then-President George W. Bush’s military service. The practice of hiring a high-profile troubleshooter, already by then a reliable corporate way to move past trouble, has since become a crisis-management standard.
There are no rules or laws surrounding these kinds of investigations, so it’s really up to the company and its hired investigators to decide how thorough to be, what kinds of actions to take, and whether to make the findings public.
An investigation won’t necessarily fix anything. The law firm hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the George Washington Bridge scandal was criticized for what was viewed by many as slipshod work ― deleting its notes on the investigation and keeping only memos written from those notes. The firm’s bills eventually were made public, leading to charges that Christie was trying to whitewash his involvement in the scandal at taxpayer expense.
A botched internal investigation can also backfire for a company. IBM’s internal probe of an employee’s age-discrimination complaint was so one-sided that a judge who awarded the plaintiff millions rebuked the computer giant for trying to exonerate itself with its investigation rather than determine if the employee had been treated fairly.
Lawyers who represent aggrieved workers in discrimination cases and those who work for companies fending off these claims said they had no doubt that Holder, who was President Barack Obama’s attorney general from 2009 to 2015 ― the first African American to hold the position ― would conduct a thorough investigation of Uber.
That means not only investigating Fowler’s claims, but looking more broadly to see whether Uber has systemic issues related to the treatment of women. Holder was also hired by the state of California last month to represent the state government in any legal fights with the Trump administration.
But Holder’s investigation of Uber is hardly independent. Uber is paying Covington & Burling partner to conduct the inquiry. One lawyer who works on these kinds of investigations told The Huffington Post that billings for Covington’s work could be in the millions of dollars.
An Uber spokesperson told HuffPost that Holder will work hand in hand with Uber board member Arianna Huffington, as well as with someone from Uber’s legal team. (Huffington is no longer affiliated with HuffPost.)
But in the end, this is a private inquiry and what Uber decides to do about Holder’s findings is entirely up to Uber.
Uber has a gaping problem with women, as Fowler’s account makes clear.
According to her blog post, Fowler was told that the man who propositioned her was a first-time offender, so he wouldn’t face consequences. When it turned out he had harassed other women at Uber, the company still took no action. Fowler was told to stop complaining, and her manager threatened to fire her for speaking up. That kind of retaliation is illegal.
But what’s most shocking isn’t the sexism and harassment, but the company’s utter failure to deal with Fowler’s claims.
The human resources department at Uber is understaffed and only really equipped to deal with recruiting, according to a report in Recode.
It’s clear that the only reason that Uber is taking action now is because it got caught.
“The issues that gave rise to these so-called investigations are issues that their legal department should’ve foreseen long before anyone sued or complained publicly,” Romer-Friedman said. “The way to justice shouldn’t be you have to make a blog post.”