Business & Economy

Uber's Travis Kalanick announces leave of absence; company adopts harassment policies

Uber says it's making changes to address a culture that was blamed for tolerating sexual harassment and other misconduct. Here, the companiy's headquarters are seen in San Francisco.
Uber says it's making changes to address a culture that was blamed for tolerating sexual harassment and other misconduct. Here, the companiy's headquarters are seen in San Francisco.
Eric Risberg/AP

Uber made two big announcements Tuesday, adopting new policies to improve its workplace environment and saying CEO Travis Kalanick is going on a leave of absence for personal reasons. Kalanick said he needs time to grieve the recent death of his mother.

"The ultimate responsibility, for where we've gotten and how we've gotten here rests on my shoulders," Kalanick said. "There is of course much to be proud of but there is much to improve."

Kalanick said he would be working on a team that could lead "Uber 2.0."

"But if we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve," he added.

The statement was included in Uber's note announcing new policies that are meant to help it fight sexual harassment and change a corporate culture that's been blamed for allowing workplace misconduct to flourish. Uber's board unanimously accepted former attorney general Eric Holder's recommendations for improving the company.

As Uber released details of the plan to its roughly 12,000 employees Tuesday, Chief Human Resources Officer Liane Hornsey said:

"Implementing these recommendations will improve our culture, promote fairness and accountability, and establish processes and systems to ensure the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.

"While change does not happen overnight, we're committed to rebuilding trust with our employees, riders and drivers."

The need for a new approach was highlighted by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, who published a blog post in February in which she said she was sexually harassed at the company, and that both managers and the human resources unit ignored her complaints.

In response to that and similar accusations, Uber fired 20 employees, including senior executives, and reprimanded 40 more employees. Those moves came last week, after an outside firm was hired to investigate more than 200 misconduct claims against the company, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reported.

The new plan is emerging at a time of turmoil for Uber's top executives. Its president, Jeff Jones, quit in March after less than six months. And on Monday, reports emerged that Uber's co-founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, may take a leave of absence.

Thanks to an aggressive growth strategy, Uber now operates in cities on six continents. Valued at around $70 billion, it's one of the largest private companies in the world. But its reputation has suffered over the harassment reports, and the company has also faced challenges to its labor and competition practices, as well as a lawsuit from Google's parent company over its self-driving vehicle program.

Here's how NPR's Aarti Shahani described the news about Kalanick:

"We really don't know too much about this yet, but a couple weeks ago, his mom died in a boating accident, and his dad landed in the hospital — so I mean really horrible personal loss. And it could be he just needs a break. It could also be that leadership is losing faith in his ability to pivot the company."

Shortly after the board announced it had adopted the proposals in Holder's report at the start of this week, the company saw another high-profile departure, as senior vice president for business Emil Michael announced his resignation.

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