Uber addresses workplace harassment as rider safety concerns linger

Rideshare company partners with Purple Campaign

By Sara Ashley O'Brien, CNN Business
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

(CNN) - Two years ago, Uber was hardly a company lauded for its approach to sexual harassment in the workplace.

But now the newly-public company has struck up a partnership with a young nonprofit called the Purple Campaign whose mission is to end sexual harassment in the workplace.

Uber, along with Amazon, Expedia and Airbnb, have all agreed to share information with the nonprofit about their internal policies, including training, reporting and response channels, and diversity and inclusion efforts. The information is intended to ultimately help the Purple Campaign develop a certification that will indicate a company has taken adequate steps to internally prevent and address sexual harassment.

Uber has a sordid history around the issue when it comes to both its corporate employees and its drivers and riders.

During a small event in New York City, Uber chief diversity officer Bo Young Lee -- who was hired in January 2018 -- addressed the corporate culture "perfect storm" it faced in February 2017, including the #DeleteUber backlash and former engineer Susan Fowler's viral blog post outlining systemic harassment at the company. Fowler's allegations led to an outside investigation into Uber's culture and a management exodus.

Sexual abuse and harassment by Uber drivers has more recently been in the spotlight. A 2018 CNN investigation found at least 103 Uber drivers in the United States had been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers in the previous four years. The drivers were arrested, wanted by police, or had been named in civil suits related to the incidents. It was the first time that any numbers had been put to the issue.

In the wake of that report, Uber eliminated its forced arbitration policy for sexual harassment and assault complaints -- for drivers, riders and employees -- as well removed a confidentiality requirement as part of settlement agreements.

The move was praised at Tuesday's event, but eliminating forced arbitration was only one of the promised safety measures the company publicly said it would take following CNN's report.

Uber also pledged to publish a "safety transparency report" to provide numbers on sexual assaults and other incidents that occur on its platform.

More than a year later, the company has yet to release the safety transparency report but said it plans to sometime this year.

In November 2018, Uber released a taxonomy report -- the first step to releasing the transparency report. The taxonomy defines 21 categories of complaints, ranging from staring or leering to masturbation and non-consensual sexual penetration.

In securities filings ahead of its initial public offering, Uber warned that the transparency report could have a detrimental impact on its business.

"I think that the report itself will be coming out this year," Lee said when asked about the report's status. "I'm very curious about it. My main focus is on the internal side so I'm going to take what we learn from that transparency report and say, 'Is there something there that we can bring internal as well so we can ensure that we're being as consistent as possible on both sides of it?'"

Lee stressed that with safety as a priority, Uber needs internal initiatives to match external efforts.

But its external efforts are still a work in progress.

In responding to a question about unsafe incidents on the Uber platform, Lee said that while her team is probably going to "hate" her for saying it, "one of the biggest challenges" is that drivers aren't employees.

Because drivers are classified as contract workers, the company can do little by way of training. Uber and Lyft have long argued that their drivers are independent contract workers, not employees, something that has been challenged in numerous lawsuits over the years.

But the company does have control over background checks and who it is allowing to work as a driver.

Uber, like the other tech companies partnering with the Purple Campaign, is not guaranteed to receive "certification" as a result of the partnership but it is helping fund the effort, said Purple Campaign's cofounder Ally Coll.

Coll said the companies have agreed to administer a confidential HR policy survey to help glean feedback on their existing anti-harassment policies and practices. The Purple Campaign will produce a benchmark report to compare each organization's approach with other organizations and then will provide recommendations for improvement.

The Purple Campaign plans to create an outside stamp of approval for companies similar to the LEED green building certification or the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index, which serves as a benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices concerning LGBTQ employees.

The Purple Campaign was borne out of the #MeToo movement. Coll detailed at the event her own experience with workplace harassment as an intern working on Capitol Hill. She was previously employed at law firm Boies Schiller Flexner but left after learning it retained investigators to spy on women speaking out against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

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