Good Results, But Abusive Work Environment

It seems like we’ve been in austerity mode for a while now in many, if not most, industries. There are salary and hiring freezes, and an emphasis on profit like we’ve never seen before. One reason for middle-class wage stagnation, especially when compared to earlier generations, may be that investors and business owners expect a greater profit than their counterparts from earlier eras.

With that in mind, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Uber’s work culture has come under attack. But the article, originally published in The New York Times, has generated a lot of interest online. “…the focus on pushing for the best result has also fueled what current and former Uber employees describe as a Hobbesian environment at the company, in which workers are sometimes pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers,” the author of the piece, Mike Isaac, writes.

Is some (hopefully less extreme) version of the Uber work model in operation at your company? It’s been in operation at nearly every company I’ve worked for. At one of my past companies, for example, forced ranking was used, in which managers were forced to rank members of their department from first to last in indispensability. I always wondered if, despite my prodigious high-quality work output, I had to come in last just because I was the most junior person on staff who wasn’t a sales rep (of course, sales always trumps writing). When forced ranking—the ultimate way of pitting one worker against another—is used, is it to give executives an idea of who should go first in case layoffs are “necessary,” or is it to spark competition between employees, or both?

Do you use forced ranking, or another method, for sparking possibly useful competition between employees?

The other question the article about Uber raises in my mind is how much is forgivable when a manager doesn’t act as he or she should, but is generating profit for a company? Most of the toxic managers I’ve encountered in my career have not been particularly effective, and yet, they stayed on for years just because they were friends with the right people. So I can only imagine that if they had been good at their job, they would have had their name engraved in gold in the office lobby. How do you set standards at your company for manager behavior? Are these standards the same regardless of how much money the manager is producing for the company? How do you ensure revenue generation isn’t taken into consider if a manager has been found to have acted improperly?

At Uber, there are reports of managers accused of sexual harassment who were kept on because they were producing desirable results for the company. For legal, as well as ethical, reasons, should a company have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment? And how is “zero tolerance” defined? One allegation, two, or more? And what kind of evidence should be necessary? Is the threshold of evidence greater for a star employee?

What’s worse, the article says the abusive results-driven culture was encouraged: “…Susan Fowler, an engineer who left Uber in December, published a blog post about her time at the company. She detailed a history of discrimination and sexual harassment by her managers, which she said was shrugged off by Uber’s Human Resources department. Ms. Fowler said the culture was stoked — and even fostered — by those at the top of the company.”

The next question is whether an abusive internal culture at a company eventually spills over into its public culture, affecting how employees treat customers? At what point does the cutthroat, disrespectful work environment make employees so unhappy and bitter that they take it out on the company’s customers, or unconsciously model the behavior they have experienced themselves—aren’t you more likely to abuse others if you’ve been abused yourself?

Some people might say the whole concept of Uber and the “gig economy” is abusive. Rather than offering the safeguards of traditional employment with a structured schedule and benefits, Uber drivers are given a pathway to earn money on the fly. This employment setup often is presented as an entrepreneurial opportunity, but given Uber’s treatment of the full-time employees it does have, I wonder whether its whole business model is more abusive than enterprising. What do you think?

What strategies do you use at your company to create a competitive, entrepreneurial environment that produces results without encouraging abuse?

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