Potential shake-up at Uber may see CEO taking break

NEW YORK • Facing accusations that Uber executives turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and other corporate misbehaviour, the ride- hailing operator's board has moved to shake up the company's leadership, ahead of the release this week of an investigation's findings on its troubled corporate culture.

Uber directors are weighing a three-month leave of absence for CEO Travis Kalanick, who founded the company in 2009 and built it into a nearly US$70 billion (S$97 billion) entity, according to three people with knowledge of the board's agenda.

In addition, a representative for Uber's board said the directors also "unanimously voted" over the weekend to adopt all of the recommendations made in a report by former US attorney-general Eric Holder, who was retained to investigate the company's culture, which included ordering Mr Kalanick to step down temporarily.

Another recommendation is the departure of a top lieutenant to Mr Kalanick, Mr Emil Michael. The potential moves would scale back the involvement of Mr Kalanick and strip him of an ally, a setback for a chief executive who had been hailed as an innovator and a role model. The changes would also further destabilise the leadership at Uber, which has upended the transportation industry worldwide, at a time when rivals are trying to capitalise on the company's woes.

Mr Kalanick, 40, proposed the idea of taking time off, after a recent boating accident that killed his mother and sent his father to the hospital. But any reduction of his involvement in Uber - even if temporary - would be significant, given that he moulded the ride-hailing service in his own brash image.

By taking on entrenched taxi companies and regulators across the world, Uber has developed a win- at-any-cost reputation that its opponents say has contributed to a toxic workplace.

Leaked company memos and allegations of sexual harassment have helped paint a troubling portrait of an entity that at times operates less like a Fortune 500 company than a college fraternity.

Last week, Uber fired 20 employees amid an investigation by external lawyers into hundreds of claims of alleged misconduct.

Some employees have received written warnings, and others will receive workplace training. Separately, Uber also fired an executive, Mr Eric Alexander, who acquired the medical records of a customer in India who had allegedly been raped during a trip on Uber.

Some Uber investors said they expected Mr Michael to take the fall for Mr Kalanick, after the CEO's failure to address issues of morale and workplace culture.

The potential sweeping personnel changes came days before Mr Holder and his firm, Covington & Burling, were expected to release the results of their investigation.

The report will mark a crucial turning point for Uber, one of the world's fastest-growing technology companies. It may may also have ramifications for Silicon Valley as a whole.

Tech companies of all sizes have grappled with gender and minority representation for years, showing little progress in their efforts to hire more women, blacks and Latinos. Those they have hired have increasingly spoken out about discriminatory corporate cultures.

Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote an incendiary blog post in February on workplace conditions, alleging that the company repeatedly declined to investigate and punish her boss' unwanted sexual advances.

Already under fire for the way it handled a taxi strike in New York linked to the Trump administration's travel ban, Uber began seeing more of its users jump to rival platforms as a rising call to "#deleteUber" circulated on social media.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline 'Potential shake-up at Uber may see CEO taking break'. Print Edition | Subscribe