Why Uber, Google, and Other Companies Failed to Address Workplace Harassment

Even though we see the rise of the #MeToo movement and can witness the way recent harassment issues are shaping the global conversation against workplace bullying, abuse, discrimination, and other forms of misconduct, there’s still a lot to be done.

Particularly, many companies haven’t yet provided effective workplace harassment training, preventing their employees from fully comprehending this issue with must-attend annual seminars. Some see this kind of training as a simple fulfillment of a legal obligation—some executives and HR departments don’t even consider this question as a serious one. The worst thing is that the number of harassment victims keeps growing, bystanders keep silent, and bullies think they can act with impunity.

Harassment issues have a profound, negative impact on a company in general, not just affecting the individuals in question. Let’s see how well-known organizations got in trouble in the first place, why it happened, and what ways there are to prevent workplace harassment.

Companies are still inefficient at taking steps towards addressing workplace harassment issues

The Fall of 2017 has brought into the spotlight workplace harassment issues that have resulted in lawsuits, resignations, and high-profile cases across the world. One would think that such consequences would have spurred companies to improve the way they prevent and deal with harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, the reality is far different.

  • 77% of directors haven’t even discussed harassment at the board level.

A recent study shows that more than half of executives don’t think that harassment can happen in their companies, which is why they don’t see it as a problem they should pay attention to. Other reasons include “This topic just hasn’t come up,” “Board members are men,” and “It wouldn’t be well-received.” Another study by the American Psychological Association reveals that only 32% of employers have introduced new initiatives to prevent harassment in the workplace. In addition, only 10% of employees say that their company has added more training related to sexual harassment after all of the hard-hitting cases that happened within the last two years.

  • 75% of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found out that more than 70% of workplace harassment cases go unreported due to shame, fear, possible retaliation, and rumors holding back victims from reporting misconduct. The SHRM research revealed a very interesting gap while surveying managers and employees: more than 50% of executives believed that harassment issues are rare in their companies, but only 35% of non-management employees agreed with that statement. Moreover, though 94% of organizations established certain anti-harassment policies, only 78% of employees knew they existed, and 1 in 3 employees said that their workplace fostered harassment.

  • 80% of employees’ poor productivity is related to a toxic work environment.

When employees are constantly stressed or frightened, they have difficulty focusing on job tasks. That is how our brain works: if an individual is befuddled by negative thoughts, all other daily tasks and activities fade into insignificance. An unhealthy work environment that fosters harassment is a surefire way to cause burnout, high turnover, and absenteeism, not to mention a damaged reputation and possible lawsuits. The SHRM survey shows that 23% of executives believe that workplace harassment negatively influences employees’ morale, another 23% think it results in low engagement, and 18% attribute poor productivity and performance issues to it.

Unfortunately, the above-mentioned sad statistics of companies’ preparedness and employees’ fear to act lead to undesirable consequences in most cases. And these are just a few examples of them.

Harassment incidents that disrupted Google, Uber, and other companies

“A superstar employee that is creating a toxic work environment is probably costing a company more than he or she is bringing in,” says Emily Martin, general counsel and VP for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. And it’s true. Since 2010, companies have paid out a whopping $698.7 million to employees alleging harassment through the Commission’s administrative enforcement prelitigation process alone. Despite this, even large, international companies are still hesitant to take action to timely address or prevent harassment issues.

  • Uber

Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber, in her blog post “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber” shared her story about the toxic work environment and the way HR department with executives approached employees’ reports on harassment cases.

When I reported the situation, 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 other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Over the next few months, I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager concerning inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company.

The indifference of the HR department and upper management resulted in poor retention among women. Susan says that when she joined Uber, over 25% of the employees were female. By the time she transferred to another company, that number had dropped to less than 6%. “There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization,” Fowlers adds.  

Uber did take actions after this case. The company fired 20 employees for harassment claims and hired several senior executives to set new strategies and rethink rebranding. But why didn’t the company do this earlier?

  • Google

On November 1, 2018, Google employees from different offices, starting from those in Tokyo and Singapore to the offices in Europe and the East Coast of the United States, walked off the job at 11:10 am local time in each time zone to draw attention to Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment claims, gender inequality, and racism. Employees made a list of demands that would help in eradicating the toxic culture.

1. An end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination for all current and future employees;
2. A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity;
3. A public report on the number of sexual harassment complaints made against Google employees and the outcomes of those claims;
4. The creation of a clear process for employees to report sexual misconduct safely and anonymously;
5. To have the chief diversity officer answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to Alphabet’s board of directors, and to appoint an employee representative to the board.

This massive walkout was meant to show a moral crisis at Google and the employees’ refusal to tolerate it.

  • Microsoft

“Suit claims the world’s largest software firm failed to properly redress 238 internal complaints, including harassment, discrimination, and rape.” That’s how The Guardian reports Microsoft’s poor handling of various forms of misconduct in the workplace. It’s known that between 2010 and 2016, women in technical jobs reported 108 complaints of sexual harassment and 119 complaints of gender discrimination. Moreover, they say that Microsoft denies pay raises and promotions to female tech specialists, promoting an “exclusionary boys’ club atmosphere”.

  • McDonald’s

McDonald’s workers walked off the job across ten US cities to draw attention to alleged sexual harassment at work. They demanded more respect and equality, better training for managers, and the rise of accountability for misconduct. Encouraged by the #MeToo movement, one of the workers said, “It’s time to say, I’m not on the menu.”

Even large companies with a lot of experience fail to address various forms of misconduct in the workplace, which leads to notoriety, financial losses, and business disruptions. So what is the way out?

Workplace harassment: How to not let it happen

If organizations want to build a healthy work environment and prevent any misconduct in the workplace, they need to focus on the key elements of organizational culture, specifically, the right training, respect, and strict anti-harassment policies. But what is meant by this? Let’s dive into the details.

Implement clear, ongoing specificity in your company’s training

First of all, companies need to understand that training videos on harassment from YouTube or some online courses may not be as effective as their authors promise. The reason is that in the majority of cases, such videos are mostly focused on preventing harassment in typical offices and/or are very generalized. However, not all people work in the same environments. According to the Center for American Progress, the top three industries that suffer from harassment incidents are hospitality and food services (14,23%), retail (13,44%), and manufacturing (11,72%). This means that companies need to adjust their workplace harassment training to their specific conditions: the industry they operate in; where their employees work (in the factory, store, office, etc.); the number of employees; and other peculiarities. This boils down to the necessity of developing their own content relevant to their work environment.

Secondly, harassment training needs to be role-based. Leaders, executives, managers, and HR departments, for example, need to receive training focused on how to address misconduct, avoid retaliation, and maintain a safe workplace, while employees need to know clear steps on what to do if they become a victim or a bystander. In this case, segmented training will come in handy.

Thirdly, a single training session will make no difference in providing a harassment-free culture. If you want to develop accountability and understanding, you need to constantly reinforce this kind of training by engaging your employees in learning on a daily basis. This requires an emotional attachment to learning derived from great learning experiences that favor better knowledge retention and an easier adaptation to the company’s new policies, among other factors. “People who have been in the workplace for a long time are another great reason why regular training is important. Norms for what is and is not appropriate workplace behavior are constantly evolving—and evolve relatively rapidly; even in the last decade, I’ve seen significant changes as to what is acceptable behavior in the workplace,” explains Alisa Shorago, an attorney and owner of San Diego-based Shorago Training Services.

Finally, training shouldn’t be overwhelming. To minimize information overload and ensure the retention of information, it’s wise to divide workplace harassment training into easily digestible microlearning lessons.

Build a culture of civility and respect

The above-mentioned examples of high-profile cases at industry-leading companies clearly show that a rotten company culture is one of the main hurdles that get in the way of a harassment-free, non-toxic work environment.

Every person in a company, whether it’d be the CEO, a middle-level manager, an HR professional, or an employee, must not ignore even a single incident of harassment in order to build an inclusive culture. Training needs to be followed by leadership support that fosters civility, fairness, and respect.

Also, Susan Fowler mentions that companies can promote a harassment-free culture by quitting the practice of buying employees’ silence and ending forced arbitration that “deprives employees of their constitutional rights, and forces employees who have been treated unlawfully to keep silent about what they have experienced.”

A healthy, harassment-free, and thriving company culture is possible only when every individual feels safe and supported by both other employees and ongoing training.

If you want to introduce workplace harassment training that will work specifically for your company and contribute to fighting any misconducts in the workplace, request Rallyware’s smart training platform demo!