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Uber HR chief’s comments on 'taking shots' not wise move: Stanford professor

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent
Liane Hornsey. Source Meet the Boss/YouTube

During an all-hands meeting on Tuesday, Uber’s chief of HR made multiple references to doing “shots,” in one of several awkward moments at a meeting meant to share recommendations on how the company can fix its culture.

Those moments were caught on recorded audio shared exclusively with Yahoo Finance.

The embattled ride-hailing startup saw renewed backlash after the meeting, which came following accusations of sexual harassment at the company. Also on Tuesday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said he’s taking a leave of absence, amid mounting pressure and a drumbeat of negative press. His mother also recently died in a boating accident.

‘You can have two shots’

At one point during the all-hands meeting, Hornsey encouraged employees to essentially participate in a drinking game: every time she said the word “bloody,” they should take a shot (presumably, of alcohol). Hornsey, who appeared to have a British accent, made the reference several times throughout the all-hands meeting.

“We have just got to get seriously real, and we have got to get real in a way that no bloody company’s — oh sorry, I’m blind,” mused Hornsey. “I read yesterday that if I said ‘bloody,’ you all have to take a shot. So, so sorry. I just said ‘bloody.’ In fact, I said it twice. So you can have two shots, but only after hours. Sorry.”

Hornsey, a former Google (GOOG, GOOGL) veteran and Softbank operating partner who joined Uber in late 2016, was very likely joking when she made those off-the-cuff remarks, but they’re nonetheless troubling given Hornsey helps set the tone for Uber — a company that employs more than 12,000 people.

In this Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, file photo, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File

“I have heard of people paying into a ‘fine jar’ for using swear words (where the jar gets donated to some charity), but taking ‘shots’ as in alcohol seems not like the best punishment,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University. “Alcohol abuse is a serious health problem and a particular problem in the SV ‘bro’ culture that Uber exemplifies, but it is hardly the only instance of [that ‘bro’ culture]. I do not think encouraging people to take shots is a wise move, regardless of the specific company’s history.”

Pfeffer added that there are religions — not to mention personal background issues like alcoholism in one’s family — that forbid alcohol consumption.

“If one wants to encourage a truly inclusive culture, we need to be sensitive to that,” he said.

‘Will you all just stand up and give each a hug before I speak, please?’

Another unequivocally awkward moment? When Hornsey encouraged employees to hug one another.

“This feels so somber,” Hornsey commented during the all-hands meeting. “I don’t know whether any of you noticed, as Arianna walked down, she gave me a hug and she whispered in my ear, ‘This is an energy hug.’ So will you all just stand up and give each a hug before I speak, please? Go on, do it.”

Pfeffer contended Hornsey’s recommendation was less about sex, or sexuality, and more about HR at its most stereotypically worst.

“HR at most places is the ‘soft’ side, emotional support, ‘kumbaya’ leadership, ‘authenticity,’ and similar sentiments that often have little to do with either performance or with reality, which is one reason that HR often has less power than other functions,” explained Pfeffer, who pointed to Google as one tech company with a healthy, successful work culture. Indeed, Google ranked No. 4 on Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work For” list this year — two spots behind Facebook (FB).

Pfeffer then referred to the report Uber commissioned on how to fix its culture, which was conducted by former attorney general Eric Holder and one of his partners at the law firm Covington & Burling.

“Much of the Holder report is about building in processes that ensure effective performance,” added Pfeffer. “Larry Page is a terrific CEO. I don’t know if he hugs or not, but I can assure you his leadership skills and success don’t depend on it.”

Granted, these problematic moments during Uber’s all-hands on Tuesday paled in comparison to sexist remarks made by board director David Bonderman there. Bonderman ultimately resigned as a direct result of those comments, first reported by Yahoo Finance.

Uber did not respond to Yahoo Finance’s request for comment in time for publication.

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.  

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