Dear Susan Fowler, Please Don’t Take Uber’s Settlement Offer
Jessica Miller-Merrell | HR, Work| By
As I read your open letter about your time spent at Uber like the perhaps million of readers, I cringed. With my mouth open-wide, I read your letter. Having worked in the human resources industry for a number of large companies, your stories are ones I have heard before, just not as one story of harassment, retaliation and discrimination aimed at a single person. Yours is a story that I believe because no person would risk their professional career to write a story like this, especially considering your background as an expert in your field and a best-selling published author. You have and had a lot to lose.
I have worked in human resources for nearly 20 years, having served as a consultant to the industry, researcher and professional storyteller for the last ten years. I’ve investigated and been part of perhaps thousands of employee complaints, sexual harassment investigations, performance reviews and coaching conversations. But nothing in the scope of what you have described.
As I read your article outlining your year at Uber and the blatant sexual harassment you encountered, I was sad. I was angry. I felt like I was there because not only have I investigated claims like yours. I have also been subject to a small percentage of the situations and horror which you describe. I think that most women have which is why your story had the effect that it did. According to a 2008 study by the Association of Women in Action, 54% of the respondents reported have experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment.54% of women survey have experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment #work #shrm Click To Tweet
I’m Sorry That HR Failed You
As I read your letter, I kept telling myself silently that you needed to report your claims to HR. That talking to the human resources representative at the company would be the right thing. You did, though — and the HR team didn’t do a damn thing. I guess that’s wrong. They did do something. They covered up the mess, the discrimination and the retaliation that you experienced, even though you had evidence in the form of electronic communication and private messenger screenshots which is far more credible than hearsay and conversations between you and your manager.
Susan, I’m writing to apologize. While I think there were many people in your time at Uber that contributed to the horrible experience that no person should endure, I wanted to apologize to you on behalf of HR. I’m sorry. I’m sorry we failed you, not just once, but over and over again.
As I mentioned, I’ve worked in HR a long time. We’re supposed to be the keeper of ethics and the setter of good workplace examples. Because of that we don’t often have a lot of friends. I learned my lesson early on in my career how uncomfortable and awkward it is to go to happy hour with work colleagues one night and the next day several of those same individuals are in your office part of an investigation. It’s a lonely profession, and 99.9% of the people I know in human resources are some of the best human beings I’ve ever met. They (and I) absolutely love what they do. They take pride in it and have, at times, sacrificed their careers to do the right thing. Unfortunately, HR often gets a bad rap because they have to deliver tough workplace messages like laying off employees or reprimanding a leader who is a peer because of unsavory behaviors in violation of company policy.
And in your situation, HR didn’t step up. They had the chance. They had 20 or more chances in your year with Uber. They choose to ignore the blatant sexism, harassment, vulgar behavior, propositioning, and retaliation. They contributed to the hostile work environment that you spent 365 days working in.
I Won’t Suggest Solutions
I could write an article that urges employers to avoid stories like yours for the future. I might suggest that in order for companies to help create an environment where sexual harassment is not tolerated they set up an employee hotline allowing employees to submit anonymous complaints. Typically companies pay an outside service to manage these calls while holding HR and senior leaders accountable to investigations. I might even suggest company-wide sexual harassment training as well as specific manager or HR training. However, my guess is that Uber already has these things and what happened to you happened in spite of them, not because of an absence. Your story is bigger than a couple quick organizational fixes. The entire workplace and not just Uber’s needs major and immediate change.
I’m sorry, Susan. It’s all I can say, but I will give you a piece of advice. You might feel like what you’ve done is enough. Your story went viral forcing Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to call for an investigation. It’s generated some meaningful discussion online and in the media, which is forcing Uber and others to address hostile work environments and sexism in the workplace. By now, you’ve gotten a call from Uber’s legal team or someone who has made a very generous offer to make this workplace horror story go away, by throwing money at the problem. I’m not telling you not to take the offer, but I am suggesting that you talk to an attorney. You certainly have a case that would be of interest to the EEOC — because your story is bigger than you.Hey, @susanthesquark Don't take #Uber's sexual harassment settlement http://bit.ly/no-susan #shrm #tech Click To Tweet
Stand Up and Fight
Your case can help change the discrimination and harassment that exists not just in Silicon Valley or in tech but everywhere. Your story could change the workplace for thousands — or even millions — of women working in the US now, and in the future. I ask that before you sign that non-disclosure and cash that seven-figure check, you think about this very carefully. People aren’t taking sexual harassment seriously enough. I mean, we have just sworn in a president who calls statements like “grab her by the pussy” locker room talk.
The only way that companies, managers or even CEOs will really learn that the behavior you experienced, described and endured is wrong is by hurting them in their P&L’s, earnings calls and EBITA. We need more strong women to stand up and drive attention to how common experiences like yours are in workplaces. You have an opportunity to drive change for women in tech, and most importantly, to help create a new workplace for our daughters that is free from this kind of negativity.
So Susan, don’t take the deal. Stand up and fight. You have the power. You have the opportunity to make a difference in equality and ending sexism in the workplace. Personally, I’d love to see your next book be about your experience, the experience of other women and how we can effectively eliminate harassment like you experienced at work.
Branigan Robertson says
Powerful stuff, Jessica. I’ve represented women who have been victimized by workplace harassment (I’m a lawyer). Despite how common it is to hear stories of sexual harassment, if people really knew how common it was, as well as how common it is for companies to cover it up, they’d be in for a shock.
Jessica Miller-Merrell says
Thanks Branigan. Exactly my point. While HR isn’t an employee advocate, they are a more neutral point that should be providing guidance, process and consistency to avoid situations like these. Then again, most former employees don’t write blog posts on their sites talking about all the harassment they endured. Employers need to be aware of what happened when employees do this and have a plan.
I hope the situation opens the eyes to leaders about how common workplace sexual harassment is. Even in writng this blog I had several comments from Facebook friends that I felt took a condescending and misogynistic approach. Susan really had nothing to by talking about this so openly. I don’t think she thought it would go viral or result in a settlement offer which is why I really that what she described likely happened.
Thanks for the comment.