When Bernard Coleman III took the job as Uber’s diversity officer in January — after doing the same job in Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign — it’s likely he didn’t expect to be immediately embroiled in what is morphing into one of the car-hailing company’s biggest crises.
Now, sources say, he’s the one scrambling to put together a new and innovative kind of diversity report that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had vehemently opposed — until former company engineer Susan Fowler posted explosive claims of sexism and sexual harassment during her year-long stint at the company.
Frying pan, meet fire.
Sources say Uber management has fast-tracked the report of diversity data, even though it is hoping to make it more sweeping and substantive than others released by tech companies.
It could be released within weeks, sources say. And when it is, many inside and outside the company will be scrutinizing Coleman’s work — against a backdrop of skepticism about Uber and its commitment to diversity, especially in its treatment of women.
Along with tasteless ads, even more tasteless remarks from top execs including Kalanick and many reports that the company did not pay enough attention to the safety of women passengers, the Fowler allegations have hit Uber’s already mixed reputation hard.
Making it more dicey has been Kalanick’s adamant refusal to release diversity stats, despite recent pressure from activists like Reverend Jesse Jackson, which has made him an outlier in tech. Sources at the company said that the pugnacious leader thinks using traditional measures of diversity — such as accounting for the number of women or people of color, or lack thereof — is not the right metric of success.
No longer, post-Fowler, as Kalanick promised earlier this week to unveil Uber’s diversity data. Now, it is up to Coleman to show that Uber has a commitment to change the toxic parts of its culture and create programs and practices that have not been focused on since the company was founded in 2009.
It won’t be the first time Coleman was thrown into a difficult role. The longtime human resources operator joined Uber after more than a year of working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as the chief diversity and human resources officer. It was the first time a presidential campaign had a position of its kind, according to Coleman and verified by Uber.
In fact, if you want to know how Coleman thinks about diversity, look no further than the numerous interviews he participated in during his time at the campaign. Perhaps most relevant to Uber’s situation, Coleman told Nasdaq that a company’s cultural diversity has to come from the top.
Unfortunately, many organizations have a see-say problem: Their HR departments and websites state one thing about their mission for diversity, but when you really get inside the organization the culture does not reflect what they’ve been saying. Buy-in and true commitment can only come from the top, from leading by example. You can’t change the culture if you’re not authentic in your commitment to changing it. Employees see right through that and it undermines future efforts of the organization to find diverse talent.
Well, that’s certainly pertinent to Uber, especially with Fowler’s account, which is being investigated by a group that includes director Arianna Huffington and outside counsel and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
The issues they will be looking at are exactly the ones Coleman addressed in an essay titled “To my African-American Daughters and the American Workforce”:
Diversity is simply not effective in isolation — to be successful it must always be paired with inclusion. When engaging with others and attempting diversity and inclusion, it requires various types of people and differing perspectives before navigating or developing a strategic plan. Diversity and inclusion are a deliberate commitment. And it’s not easy. Anything ever gained seldom is easy.
During his time on the campaign, Coleman would hold weekly “Stronger Together” chats during which he’d discuss different themes — sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc. — in order to educate staffers on how best to be an advocate for or an ally to different identity groups.
Ahead of his Islamophobia chat, Coleman sat down with both the campaign’s director of Muslim affairs Farooq Mitha and the national spokeswoman for Muslim affairs Zara Rahim for more than an hour to delve into what both staffers thought was important to talk about.
In other words, Coleman doesn’t presume to know.
According to Rahim, who used to work as a spokesperson for Uber and described the conversation as raw and honest, it was the first time someone in the political space asked her what it felt like to be Muslim in America.
“The Clinton campaign was a safe space, but that was an even a safer space,” Rahim told Recode.
Coleman was filling a role left vacant by the company’s first diversity and inclusion officer Damien Hooper-Campbell. Hooper-Campbell was at Uber for around a year before he left for eBay in June 2016. It’s not clear why he left after just a year, but he did so around the same time the company’s former head of human resources Renee Atwood left for Twitter.
But Coleman’s hiring was well-timed for Uber. Just as the company, valued at $69 billion, said he would be joining the company, Jackson sent Kalanick a letter urging him to release Uber’s diversity data.
The Rainbow/Push Coalition, Jackson’s organization, focuses on leveling the economic and educational playing field to protect and attain civil rights.
In his letter to Kalanick, Jackson asked for both the gender and racial makeup of Uber’s board and its workforce as well, plus the number of hires the company made between 2014 and 2016.
At the time, Uber responded with the PR equivalent of a cold shoulder, saying: “We appreciate the attention and focus Rev. Jackson brings to these issues and look forward to continuing our discussions with the Rainbow/Push Coalition.”
But the company has shifted that not-now tone. In his letter to employees following Fowler’s post, Kalanick wrote:
I believe in creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do. Every Uber employee should be proud of the culture we have and what we will build together over time. What is driving me through all this is a determination that we take what’s happened as an opportunity to heal wounds of the past and set a new standard for justice in the workplace.
And, during an all-hands meeting on Tuesday, Kalanick even apologized to the company’s now more than 11,000 employees for a dearth in diversity and the company’s failure to address Fowler’s allegations properly, according to sources.
“He was very emotional, very raw,” said one person in attendance. “The hardest questions from the staff were about how this could happen and why systems that were in place did not stop it.”
Coleman will be part of repairing what is clearly a broken system, along with head of HR Liane Hornsey, a former Google executive who was hired late last year.
She and Coleman have the hefty task of not only boosting employee morale but making up for years of Kalanick’s lack of emphasis on the importance of diversity as a metric or, more importantly, in investing in training of employees to be better managers.
“The organization needs goals and measurements tied to diversity, so it’s easier to track and not an intangible thing,” Coleman said in his interview with Nasdaq. “Staff needs to fully understand there is a real value associated with diversity and inclusion.”