After a former Uber engineer took to her personal blog to describe persistent sexual harassment by her manager, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced on February 19 that the ride-sharing service will conduct an “urgent investigation” into the allegations.
Susan Fowler, the ex-Uber employee, wrote that on her first day at the company her manager sent her multiple messages saying that he was in an open relationship and looking for women to have sex with. Alarmed by the situation, she took screenshots of the chat messages and reported him to HR.
“I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything but a warning and a stern talking-to,” Fowler wrote. “Upper management told me that he was a ‘high performer’ (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”
According to Fowler, she was given a choice: join another team so she wouldn’t have to interact with the offending manager or stay on his team, with the understanding that he would most likely give her a poor performance review and “there was nothing they could do about that.” One HR rep, she writes, even told her that a negative review wouldn’t be considered retaliation because she was given an option.
Fowler chose to join another team and over the next few months heard stories from other women engineers, who were also the target of inappropriate behavior by the same manager. HR ignored their complaints too, according to Fowler.
What is sexual harassment in the workplace?
Sexual harassment is a type of discrimination that is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to organizations with 15 or more employees. Title VII also prohibits retaliation (firing, demoting, harassing) against an employee for filing a sexual discrimination complaint. Many states also have their own sexual harassment laws, so it’s important to stay up to date on regulations in your community and state.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
Sexual harassment can occur in many different situations and can happen to both women and men or between co-workers of the same sex. The harasser can be a manager working in another area or even a nonemployee.
Sexual harassment can be verbal, nonverbal, physical or any other behavior that creates a hostile, abusive or offensive work environment. Examples include offensive jokes, inappropriate touching, repeated requests for dates or sexual favors, displaying offensive pictures or objects and sending sexually explicit emails.
Organizations can take steps to prevent workplace sexual harassment by:
- Implementing an anti-sexual harassment policy
- Establishing a clear procedure for reporting sexual harassment
- Investigating promptly any reports of sexual harassment
- Protecting employees who file sexual harassment charges from retaliation
- Conducting regular employee training on sexual harassment laws and issues
- Demonstrating in words and actions that HR and top management expect all employees to be treated with dignity and respect
Sexual harassment in the workplace is unlawful and yet it remains a persistent problem, resulting in serious consequences for organizations. Enabling a hostile, intimidating work environment can damage an organization’s reputation and negatively affect their profits and ability to recruit and retain the best employees. Had Uber promptly investigated Fowler’s charges against her manager, the company may have been able to resolve the situation and avoid the current swell of negative media coverage.