Uber Illegal! Avoiding Uber Liability for Workplace Harassment

As you may have heard, earlier this week former Uber employee Susan Fowler shared a blog post detailing her brief though fascinatingly disturbing stint as an engineer at Uber. This issue directly addresses workplace harassment.

The Internet was atwitter as Fowler laid out detail after disturbing detail regarding her alleged mistreatment at the hands of Uber’s management and HR. Beginning Day 1 her manager sent her sexually tinged messages inviting her to engage in sexual relations. Trying to do the right thing, she reported the manager to HR, but was told that since it was the manager’s “first offense,” termination would not be an option. Nonetheless, she was offered the choice of switching teams if she didn’t want a negative performance review from the offending manager! Fowler would later learn that hers was not a unique situation, and that other women had reported the manager in question for similar inappropriate behavior. Each was told that it was his “first offense” and not a big enough deal to require more than a warning. Fowler goes on to list a host of questionable if not illegal actions that ultimately resulted in her exiting from Uber.

Uber is now scrambling to clean up this apparent mess. While PR may be able to spin the shockingly obtuse (allegedly) actions of HR, the jury is still out on the extent of the damage, but suffice it to say, there will be pain. What’s worse, this could have been prevented – easily and relatively inexpensively. If I were representing Uber, here’s some advice I’d offer:

  • Clearly and definitively make clear that Uber strongly and unequivocally condemns all forms of workplace harassment, including/especially sexual harassment!
  • Devise and implement a policy against said harassment
  • Educate the Uber workforce about the policy through a series of employee training workshops
  • Faithfully and consistently enforce the policy.

So how can Uber’s inevitable loss be your company’s gain?

Regardless of the size of your business, you can take steps to prevent sexual harassment. One of the best ways to do this is to have an anti-harassment policy. While your business is not legally required to have a harassment policy, it should have one.

You must keep in mind, though, that simply announcing a policy is not enough. While indeed an important first line of defense against workplace harassment, often the best and often easiest way to properly educate yourself and all employees is through a training program regarding the policy. Your employees need to be informed as to what could be considered inappropriate behavior, and as the Uber case demonstrates, need to be trained to handle potential complaints.

After you have properly trained your managers and rank and file employees, you must follow through with the policy: developing appropriate sanctions where necessary, promptly investigating all allegations of harassment, and taking the appropriate corrective measures in response to any investigations.

There are two types of sexual harassment. The first is “quid pro quo.” In its most basic form, this type of sexual harassment involves an employer asking an employee or a job applicant for a sexual favor in return for employment or some job benefit.

The second category is “hostile work environment.” In contrast to “quid pro quo,” this type of claim is more difficult to define, yet occurs more frequently. Many people may not even realize that they have been a victim of this type of harassment, or even that they may have been a harasser. Typically, a hostile work environment claim involves a supervisor, co-worker or customer making unwelcome sexual comments or remarks, or suggestively touching or acting in a sexually inappropriate way toward an employee.

Workplace harassment can be a costly but with a little guidance, it is preventable. If you would like to discuss your company’s policy, Julian Haffner and the employment law attorneys at Longman & Van Grack are ready to assist you. You can reach Longman & Van Grack’s employment lawyers at (301) 291-5027 and meet an our Rockville, Maryland; Bethesda, Maryland; Washington, DC; or Virginia offices.