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The pressure is back on Uber after yet another scandal

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Controversy is commonplace among the hottest Silicon Valley tech startups, but it often seems like no “unicorn” is more scandal-ridden than Uber.

On Sunday, Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer now working at Stripe, wrote an extensive blog post alleging she had been sexually harassed at Uber, and claiming the company stifled her HR complaints. If everything in her post is accurate as written, it is extremely damning.

In a statement sent to media, CEO Travis Kalanick said, “What [Fowler] describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in… I have instructed Liane Hornsey our new chief human resources officer to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations. We seek to make Uber a just workplace and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber.”

Now the pressure is on for Kalanick to follow through.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick at the Vanity Fair Summit in 2016

This scandal comes at an especially bad moment for the company—just a couple weeks after Kalanick and Uber muddled through an enormous backlash when Uber advertised rides from Kennedy Airport in New York while city taxi drivers were striking out of solidarity with those affected by President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

After the hashtag #DeleteUber began trending and more than 200,000 deleted the app, Kalanick decided to step down from a Trump business council and cancel his visit to the White House. (Elon Musk, who is also on the council and stayed on, managed to play the situation more smoothly.)

There’s good reason some Twitter users quickly made jokes about Kalanick’s statement this time—apologetic statements have become old hat for Uber. (One person tweeted: “‘What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in’, claimed Kalanick, having never heard of Uber.'”)

In the past three years, Uber has come under fire for a stunningly broad range of issues, from many, many allegations of assault by drivers, to activating surge pricing during a police siege in Australia. It was also sued by an advocacy group for the blind claiming it discriminates against passengers with service dogs.

In 2014, a senior Uber executive was caught on the record at a party suggesting that Uber hire someone to dig up personal dirt on journalists who write negative stories on the company; the executive was not fired. And one year ago, in Kalamazoo, Mich., an Uber driver went on a shooting rampage in between picking up Uber passengers. The tragedy raised new questions about whether Uber’s background check process is extensive enough.

There even exists a website, whosdrivingyou.org, that tracks every criminal case involving ride-sharing rivals Uber and Lyft.

Many young Silicon Valley tech darlings have struggled with accusations of workplace sexism or outright harassment. To cite just one notable example, the developer repository GitHub was accused of gender-based harassment in 2014 and it led to the resignation of a cofounder. GitHub CEO Chris Wanstrath, in a 2015 interview with Fortune, reflected, “I think something that we did not understand when we were a small startup is that when you put a lot of time and effort into, say, your infrastructure… or you put time and effort into your design… you also need to put time and effort into your people. And you need to put time and effort into your culture, and into making sure that everyone feels someone has their back, they have someone they can go to.”

Uber is hardly a small, young startup. It has been around for nine years now and carries an eye-popping $66 billion valuation. If its HR department failed to seriously address evidence of harassment (multiple times, Fowler writes in her post), this is more than just another scandal. It’s a deep problem with its culture that Kalanick and the company will need to address—before it can move forward with that much-anticipated IPO everyone believes is coming soon.

Thus it’s no surprise that Kalanick, in a memo to Uber employees on Monday, said that former US Attorney General Eric Holder will conduct an independent review into “the specific issues relating to the work place environment raised by Susan Fowler, as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly.” Arianna Huffington, Kalanick wrote, will join the investigation.

Now the tech community will wait to see if the review yields actual change.

This story was updated on Feb. 20, 2017 at 6:40pm EST.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.  

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