Between a television drama and a damning data leak, Uber has had a tough time putting its past in the rearview in 2022.
But unlike the Showtime series, which focused on the rise and fall of former Chief Executive Travis Kalanick, this week’s “Uber Files” exposé is all about the lows for the rideshare company. Internal communications reported on by The Guardian in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) include references to Uber breaking the law, lobbying global leaders, and even exploiting violence to aid its growth during the 2010s.
“Embrace the chaos” said one reported message from a top executive that appears to sum up the company’s overall culture at the time.
Uber’s troubled past is a story we already know, but the extent of the unethical activities alleged to have taken place within its walls still manage to make for gripping headlines—and serve as a reminder of the inescapable shadow of toxic leadership.
Though Kalanick resigned as CEO of Uber in 2017 and exited its board in 2019, the company is still answering for his actions today. “We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values,” Uber said in a statement responding to the ICIJ’s investigation. “Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”
Dara Khosrowshahi is the new CEO, and 90 percent of the company’s current employees have joined since he took over, Uber noted. Khosrowshahi “rewrote the company’s values, revamped the leadership team, made safety a top company priority, implemented best-in-class corporate governance, hired an independent board chair, and installed the rigorous controls and compliance necessary to operate as a public company,” Uber added.
And yet, many customers still might be skeptical toward Uber. A common theme from the ICIJ’s investigation is manipulation: of laws, of political leaders, and of employees. The report includes one executive boasting about being “pirates” when discussing tactics to avoid regulatory enforcement and also details the alleged use of a “kill switch” to prevent authorities from gathering evidence during office raids.
Kalanick is perhaps most prominent in the findings. He is alleged to have said “violence guarantee[s] success” when discussing sending Uber drivers into potentially dangerous protests being led by taxi drivers across Europe—a claim a spokesperson vehemently denied on his behalf.
But Kalanick is no stranger to controversy, most notably in the months leading to his resignation as CEO, when allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment at the company spread wide. Even in the aftermath of his departure as CEO, the Uber co-founder was reluctant to cede his influence as a board member regarding the company’s operations until he ultimately left in 2019, making billions selling his Uber stock on the way out.
Three years later, the stain of Kalanick’s actions remains. This was by his design: Kalanick was Uber. Like Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook or Steve Jobs at Apple before him, he sought to transcend the company and have it fall in line with his way of doing business.
While Uber might not be around without his successes along the way, his faults will equally haunt the company for years to come. It might have weathered the worst from regulators at this point, but public perception will continue to prove problematic. Such is the price to pay when tone from the top is a firm’s greatest flaw.
“I regret being part of a group of people which massaged the facts to earn the trust of drivers, of consumers, and of political elites,” Mark MacGunn, Uber’s former chief lobbyist for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, told The Guardian in coming forward as the whistleblower behind the “Uber Files” report. “I should have shown more common sense and pushed harder to stop the craziness.”
For Uber, hindsight is 20/20. For other businesses, its story is a lesson to be learned in the lasting effects of unethical leadership.