This week, Uber temporarily lost its CEO, saw a board member leave after making a sexist comment, and was sued by a rape victim who alleges the company improperly gained access to her medical records.
This isn’t the ride-hailing giant’s first tangle with controversy.
It’s been under a cloud since February, when former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published allegations about the company’s culture of harassment on her blog. Fowler’s bombshell mentions a supervisor who propositioned her for sex, an HR department reluctant to look into her complaints, and a workplace that appeared hostile to women.
This prompted several investigations at Uber, including one headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, which led to the recent firing of more than 20 employees.
The company pledged to make changes as a result of the investigation’s findings. These steps include revamping its institutional values, prioritizing measures that promote diversity and inclusion, and cleaning up its hard-partying reputation, as Business Insider’s Biz Carson reported. Now Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has taken a leave of absence from the company.
With headlines like these, it can seem like the workplace has gone to the bros.
In a New York Times piece, Dan Lyons portrays an average bro as a hustling, amoral young man who places “winning” above all else in business. “Bro culture” is what ensues when those typically inexperienced men take over the C-suite and allow their obnoxiousness to seep into the rest of the company.
The resulting “bro culture” tends to prioritize young men over all other employees, creating an environment that’s ripe for toxic behaviors like excessive partying and systemic harassment of colleagues.
Many are blaming Uber’s woes on the rise of bro culture. But is there a cure for this toxicity? And can it be prevented?
‘Do not use the stairwells to smoke, drink, eat, or have sex’
While it presently dominates headlines, Uber is hardly the only company that’s been accused of fostering such a bro-centric culture.
HR-software startup Zenefits attracted criticism over its “rambunctious, frat-like office culture,” Business Insider’s Eugene Kim reported.
After one raucous bash, employees received an email warning them not to ditch cigarettes, alcohol, or used condoms in the office’s stairwell: “Yes, you read that right. Do not use the stairwells to smoke, drink, eat, or have sex,” the email said, as The Wall Street Journal reported.
New York Magazine reported on alleged harassment at Thinx, an underwear and feminine-hygiene startup. A former employee filed a complaint with the City of New York Commission on Human Rights, as Business Insider reported. The employee alleged that CEO Miki Agrawal groped an employee, frequently changed clothes in the office, and conducted video conferences while naked, according to New York Magazine.
While bro culture is typically defined as being led and dominated by men, in the case of Thinx, the complaint alleged that the “only two employees who negotiated higher salaries at Thinx were men,” according to The New York Times.
And it’s not as if bro-ish behaviors are new to the business world. As Newsweek reported, energy and commodities company Enron threw parties with strippers and pricey champagne. Employees often celebrated with “cocktails poured over a block of ice straight into their mouths.”
While it might be tempting to declare that the issue of bro culture is getting worse, this isn’t a new problem. What’s more, as with anything, the disasters tend to attract more ink than the companies that play by the rules. That said, when it comes to bro culture, we don’t have a lot of data to look at. Most of the data on workplace harassment tends to look at harassment in general, instead of harassment that occurs within companies that could be considered bastions of “bro culture.”
“Let’s be honest. Stories about healthy and inclusive cultures are boring,” Raleigh, North Carolina-based human-resources consultant Laurie Ruettimann tells Business Insider. “I think bro cultures are still rare. Most people go to work and suffer from working with people who are too nice for their own good and never say anything controversial or meaningful. Or they work in passive-aggressive cultures where people are nice to their faces but stab them in the back on anonymous employee-engagement surveys.”
‘Building the right culture means paying attention to it from day one’
So how does a company become infected with bro culture, and why does it seem to plague startups the most?
Part of it boils down to representation. The lack of women in leadership roles in certain male-dominated fields is a “chicken or the egg” problem. A lack of female leadership in some fields leads to fewer female mentors and fewer companies where women have a position at the upper echelons of the organization, which it turn results in fewer women entering that industry and becoming leaders themselves.
It’s a vicious cycle. Only 6% of investing partners at venture-capital companies were women as of 2014. This marks a drop from 10% in 1999, according to the Diana Project at Babson College. Meanwhile, as CNBC reported, only 9% of senior IT employees are women, according to the 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey.
In a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment, successful startups can scale rapidly. If concrete measures to encourage values such as inclusion and fairness aren’t planted in the beginning, they tend to get lost in the growth.
“Now the reality is if that bro culture isn’t acknowledged and intentionally corrected, you end up in a situation where you’ve created something that’s incredibly valuable that all of a sudden has extreme risk surrounding it, because of that culture,” Ken Ziegler, CEO of cloud-computing company LogicWorks, tells Business Insider.
“If leadership doesn’t have an intense focus on both building and sustaining the right culture for your business and the people you want to attract, it’s very easy for a toxic one to take over,” CEO of HR tech platform YouEarnedIt Autumn Manning tells Business Insider. “Building the right culture means paying attention to it from day one.”
‘I kind of felt like I had been looking into a crystal ball’
As Fowler described in her blog post, the consequences of bro culture can be incredibly damaging. Former Uber engineer Keala Lusk also shared her experience in a Medium post, alleging a persistent, toxic culture at the ride-hailing company.
“In my time there, I saw malicious fights for power, interns repeatedly putting in over 100 hours a week but only getting paid for 40, discrimination against women, and prejudice against the transgender community,” she wrote.
But in institutions lacking the structure for dealing with issues like harassment, smaller instances of problematic behavior can bloom into something far worse.
Harry Campbell, a part-time Uber and Lyft driver who blogs as The Rideshare Guy, says that he wasn’t shocked when Fowler’s allegations came out.
“I kind of felt like I had been looking into a crystal ball,” he tells Business Insider.
Uber drivers are not employees of the company; they are legally independent contractors. But Campbell says that drivers share some of the concerns that Uber employees have — namely, a culture that is more focused on results than on people.
For drivers, Campbell says this manifests itself in a feeling of expandability and a lack of structural recourse when dealing with dishonest reviews or comments from passengers, while employees like Fowler alleged that Uber’s HR bungled her harassment claims.
“When we started to see some of these issues pop up on the employee side, I think, for a lot of drivers, this wasn’t necessarily news,” says Campbell.
“If the company culture shows lower levels of respect toward independent contractors there’s really no reason that the culture’s going to be any different toward employees over the long run and that’s sort of what we saw with Uber. The human element is the thing that gets lost.”
‘Afraid, despairing, utterly alone, and complicit’
Small acts of inappropriate behavior that often go unpunished in a bro culture can normalize, leading to a toxic atmosphere in the workplace.
Adam Bear and Joshua Knobe wrote about normalization in the political realm for The New York Times. They find that when normally inappropriate or unacceptable actions continue unabated, people tend to adapt their mind-set.
“The actions are not simply coming to be regarded as more typical; they are coming to be seen as more normal. As a result, they will come to be seen as less bad and hence less worthy of outrage,” Bear and Knobe write.
And not all forms of harassment or exclusion are necessarily immediately noticed as such, especially in a bro culture.
“It can manifest in different ways: being looked over for a promotion, being ridiculed at a meeting, or feeling disengaged at work,” Manning says.
Companies can add fuel to the fire by encouraging aggressive business practices or recruiting a male-dominated workforce. A 2015 report from researchers at Kent State University and the University of Texas at Tyler found that the “prevalence of male norms in the male-dominated environment may result in a more hostile workplace for women who are perceived by men as violators of the gender norms.”
After all, targeted harassment is usually a means of asserting control and defending status on the part of the harasser, to leave victims “afraid, despairing, utterly alone, and complicit,” as Catharine A. MacKinnon wrote in her 1979 book “Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination.”
‘This all starts from the top’
So how can companies say no to bro culture, or fix the problem if their work culture is already toxic?
“This all starts from the top,” John Hudson, a Chicago-based HR business partner with Slalom tells Business Insider. “What tone are your leaders setting and how are they behaving? To prevent this, start by having a diverse recruiting pipeline. While referral programs are fantastic, they can sometimes stifle diversity recruiting efforts. Bros refer bros.”
“I think it starts even earlier — at the source of funding,” adds Ruettimann. “If your VC or board of advisors or directors model a certain type of behavior and give you money based on that behavior, you better believe that you, as a new CEO, will behave like that.”
Uber board member David Bonderman resigned this week after making a sexist joke at a meeting meant to address harassment at the company.
Ruettimann recommends instituting zero-tolerance policies for the worst offenders in a company struggling with bro culture. For everyone else, harassment and sensitivity training is important, coupled with a strong HR department with concrete and clear mechanisms for reporting bad behavior.
“You have to be totally intentional about making people aware of how they sound and the way they’re behaving and the way they use words,” Ziegler says. “The majority of the folks can be trained and sensitized and they can learn from it. It’s a learning opportunity.”
“Bro culture not only leads to inhibiting current employees from doing their best work, but also failing to attract the best talent for the job once word gets out,” Manning says.
That’s because anyone who doesn’t conform to this toxic culture tends to be held back professionally at any company that subscribes to bro culture. The result is an atmosphere that actively harms non-bros, whether by enabling outright harassment, or simply by establishing an echo chamber in which CEO-bros keep promoting other bros to top positions to the detriment of everyone else.
One thing is for sure. When you let the bros run the show, the only ones who ultimately benefit are the bros.
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