The Rise and Fall of Uber HR Chief Liane Hornsey

Her departure is a sign the company’s system is beginning to work. It’s also a crisis.

In January, I sat down with Liane Hornsey, who until yesterday was Uber’s HR chief, to discuss the progress she’d made helping to reform Uber’s culture. The company had invited me to report on its turnaround, in the run-up to the release of its redesigned drivers app. But I was interested in something else: How were things at Uber since CEO Dara Khosrowshahi arrived?

She told me that she had asked an employee—a three-year veteran at Uber—how it felt to be there. “She said to me, ‘We used to feel we were good people doing good things,’” Hornsey reflected. “‘Now we feel we’re bad people doing bad things.’” She endeavored to fix that feeling.

Hornsey had arrived at Uber just a few weeks before Susan Fowler published the February 2017 blog post that propelled the company into a turmoil it is still working to recover from. She introduced herself to the staff at a teary all-hands meeting following that post. During her tenure, she oversaw numerous investigations, ran point on the Holder report, navigated through dozens of staff departures, served on the 14-person interim leadership team that ran the company after former CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted, and tried to save Uber from itself.

Yesterday evening, 18 months later, Hornsey resigned.

Hornsey’s departure is a testament to a fledgling system that empowers employees to call executives out for bad behavior.

An email she sent to employees yesterday provides no details on the reason for her departure, nor does an email Khosrowshahi sent to staff. But it arrived hours after Reuters reported that an anonymous group of Uber employees had complained that Hornsey systematically dismissed complaints of race-based discrimination. Regardless of the content of these claims, the complaint process and Hornsey’s subsequent departure is a mark of what Hornsey helped create during her time at the company—a system that allows for empowered employees to call executives out for bad behavior, and demand swift action.

Hornsey’s resignation is also a sign of what hasn’t yet been achieved. Disgruntled employees still don’t trust Uber’s systems, and they are turning to the media to air their grievances. This suggests that Khosrowshahi’s attempt to build trust among employees, an assurance that the company can address challenges internally, has not taken hold.

“We do the right thing. Period,” Khosrowshahi repeats often, by way of a mantra. And when it comes to corporate optics, there’s a prescribed list of right things. When there is a scandal, for example, someone must leave. But the actual right things—the things that honor people, advance a business, and begin to heal a fractured culture—are not always so clear. Regardless of the events that provoked it, Hornsey’s departure is a crisis for the company—a crisis that Hornsey is no longer available to manage.

To be clear, the details of what happened at Uber have yet to be released. According to Reuters, an anonymous group of employees, identifying themselves as people of color, said Hornsey made derogatory remarks about Bernard Coleman, the company’s global head of diversity and inclusion, hired in January, and disparaged and threatened Bozoma Saint John, who stepped down last month.

Reuters reports that this conflict was the reason Saint John recently left her role as chief brand officer at Uber to take a job as chief marketing officer of the talent agency Endeavor. Also, Reuters reviewed an email in which investigators from the law firm Gibson Dunn told the group of employees making the complaint that some of their allegations had been substantiated.

One thing is clear: The next person to step into the HR chief role at Uber will inherit a very different culture, thanks to the structures Hornsey built. She arrived at an organization in crisis, and one that had grown to an enormous size without having any of the human resource rails that one might expect of a company of Uber’s size. The herculean task of building out a set of systems and practices for managing the organization fell to her.

Nothing she did went beyond what industry peers were already doing. This is a company that boasted in January about newly instituted quarterly volunteer days, allowing employees to serve soup at a homeless shelter or play with hospitalized kids, as though it was something unique. Given that Uber had never compensated employees for volunteer time or demonstrated any philanthropic inklings, it was notable. Compared to other companies of its size and scale, it was notable that the program hadn’t existed before.

But most of Hornsey’s work involved building common company processes, like less biased performance reviews or management training programs. Once she’d seen the company through its initial crisis, facilitating investigations, responding directly to hundreds of emails and conducting some 200 “listening sessions,” Hornsey instituted the move designed to be her signature: pay parity for all employees, regardless of race or gender. “Very few executives want to go to this place in any company. There’s always resistance,” she told me in January. This was before Khosrowshahi started, and she’d had to sell the idea to all of the other 14 members of the executive leadership team. The larger challenge with pay parity comes well after its instituted, of course, when managers need to negotiate salaries for new hires.

Despite this transparency, Uber still got flack for refusing to release the full report commissioned in the wake of Fowler’s memo. Compiled by former attorney general Eric Holder, it resulted in 47 recommendations that were made public in June. (A second law firm was hired specifically to investigate sexual harassment after the company received 215 complaints in the wake of Fowler’s memo.) To this day, Holder’s report hasn’t been published publicly. I asked Hornsey why, given the extreme focus on transparency, the company wouldn’t publish it. “It’s totally a board decision,” she said. “Honestly, I’ve read it. I don’t know why you wouldn’t release it.”

Transparency alone, the kind that might have come from releasing that report, doesn’t fix a trust problem. As the writer Rachel Botsman, author of Who Can You Trust, has said, transparency happens once trust has been broken. What matters isn’t that you reveal everything, but that people believe you are honest with them, and that they can, in turn, be honest with you.

Ultimately, that’s why Hornsey had to resign, regardless of what comes of the investigation underway. Khosrowshahi needs a strong, experienced HR lead, but he needs his employees’ trust even more. Right now, in the face of little publicly released information and hints of a concerning investigation, leaving is what it means to do the right thing—period.


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