How Uber's Hard-Charging Corporate Culture Left Employees Drained

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SAN FRANCISCO — At Uber, the workday starts early and ends late. Engineers working on certain teams are accustomed to predawn pings from work: Something might be broken, or about to break, and if you don’t get up and fix it, there’s hell to pay — including the possibility of an eviscerating email from a top executive, sometimes sent to the whole company.

“I felt like I was on call all the time,” said one employee. “I got texts on the weekends. Emails at 11 at night. And if you didn’t respond within 30 minutes, there’d be a chain of like 20 people.”

During periods of rapid growth, current and former employees said, on-call employees could be paged dozens or even hundreds of times a night. Even employees with realistic expectations of the hard work that fast-growing startups often demand felt burdened by an on-call system that they say often amounted to unpaid extra shifts. “There was a three- to four-month period where I was getting woken up every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3 or 4 in the morning to fix something,” said an engineer who started at Uber in 2014 of his earlier years there. “Months of that, on top of working 10-plus hours a day.”

As it revolutionized the transportation sector, Uber also created its own corporate culture. That culture, according to interviews with more than two dozen sources, was one that valued and rewarded hard-charging, hard-working, and even hard-partying employees — literally ranking them above others who weren’t seen as aggressive enough — and a management style that many say fostered anxiety and fear. Uber is now in the midst of trying to change that culture, following an investigation spurred by allegations of sexual harassment and led by former attorney general Eric Holder. But at a company with more than 15,000 people that has historically based both promotions and terminations on those most willing to go all in on its values, current and former employees paint a picture of deeply embedded problems.

In May 2015, an on-call engineer failed to respond to alerts about an issue with a master database. As a result, Uber suffered a service outage that affected operations teams worldwide: Drivers signing up to drive couldn’t be onboarded to Uber’s platform, and employees couldn’t respond to rider requests for help.

At the time, Uber had recently reached a valuation of $50 billion. Stakes were high, and CTO Thuan Pham used a companywide email to let staff know the cost of a mistake like that.

“If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?”

“The on-call engineer received/acknowledged three alerts about master database being low on disk space, but ignored it. This is not acceptable,” Pham wrote in the email, sent to more than 3,500 employees and obtained by BuzzFeed News. “We are looking to determine whether this is negligence or whether a different on-call engineer could have reasonably missed the alerts amidst a flood of other alerts from the systems at that time.”

Even more than two years later, some remembered the email as an example of what one former employee called a “culture of fear” at the company. Pham didn’t name the employee in the email, but multiple engineers familiar with the incident told BuzzFeed News the person’s identity was widely known and broadly available via an on-call schedule that is internally public.

“We try to have a blameless postmortem,” said one engineer. “That email from Thuan […] was great example of not following that.” Besides, the employee added, “if you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?”

In a follow-up email two days later, Pham addressed criticism of his decision to email the staff about the engineer’s mistake. “It came to my attention that some people in the org think that my note to the company is overly critical and has the feel of throwing people under the bus,” he wrote.

“I don’t want to create a culture [where] people are fearful of making mistakes or causing outages because they want to move fast and take smart risks, but I also don’t want a culture where we do substandard work and cause outages that are easily avoidable,” Pham wrote.

He continued: “Feeling defensive, or feeling like a victim, is NOT the way to get ourselves better.”

Travis Kalanick arrives at Uber’s New York office, May 2, 2011.

Julie Glassberg / The New York Times via Redux

For the past several months, Uber has been in the midst of a very public meltdown. In February, Susan Fowler, a former engineer, came forward with allegations of sexism and sexual harassment at the company. As a result, Uber launched two internal investigations: one into her claims, and another into the company’s culture at large, conducted by former US attorney general Eric Holder. In the end, the company fired 20 people for offenses ranging from sexual harassment to bullying and retaliation. Executives including New York general manager Josh Mohrer, senior vice president Emil Michael, and Eric Alexander, Uber’s president of business in Asia, left. (Through his personal spokesperson, Michael declined to comment. A spokesperson for Alexander did not return a request for comment. Uber has not named the individuals who were fired in the course of the investigation.) Uber’s board voted to adopt all 47 of the suggestions put forth in the Holder report; these included changing Uber’s 14 cultural values from ideas such as “toe-stepping” and “principled confrontation” to more positive guiding principles, and expressly prohibiting romantic relationships between managers and reports.

Meanwhile, Uber is also fighting an unrelated, blockbuster lawsuit from Alphabet’s self-driving unit Waymo, which alleges that the ride-hail giant stole its technology. And perhaps most significantly, Travis Kalanick, whose mother died suddenly in May, resigned as CEO on June 20, facing pressure from investors. (He will remain on the board, and sits on the committee that will pick his successor.) While the board searches for new executive leadership, the company is being run by a 14-person group.

But before its months-long implosion, Uber was one of the great success stories of the modern tech boom, a young company that swiftly devastated the taxi industry and grew to a staggering $69 billion valuation in the process. Even today, it is the most valuable tech startup in the world. As interviews with more than two dozen former and current Uber employees show, the company reached such great heights by asking forgiveness, never permission, and pushing to the limits everything that it could: laws, municipalities, markets — and workers.

These employees — all of whom shared their experiences with BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity, mostly for fear of repercussion — described impossible workloads, around-the-clock emergencies, fear of management, a total erosion of work-life balance, and a pattern of public humiliation at the hands of higher-ups as Uber pushed to become the juggernaut it is today. Many attributed panic attacks, substance abuse, depression, and hospitalizations to the stress of the job. All — even those who ultimately enjoyed their time there — recall a uniquely high-pressure environment in which employees were regularly pushed to a breaking point, but afraid to quit and leave large amounts of equity on the table.

“Many employees are very tired from working very, very hard as the company grew.”

“It’s a money cult. People are putting up with massive amounts of abuse, mental abuse, constant threats to fire you so you’re losing your equity,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “The equity, people see that as their future, their retirement, the reason they moved to America, or why they moved halfway across the country, or across the country.”

In an interview, Liane Hornsey, who joined Uber as chief human resource officer in January, openly acknowledged employee burnout. “Many employees are very tired from working very, very hard as the company grew,” she said. “Resources were tight and the growth was such that we could never hire sufficiently, quickly enough, in order to keep up with the growth.”

Asked if Uber executives were aware that employees have experienced panic attacks, visited the hospital, and attempted self-harm while working at the company, Uber declined to comment.

To be sure, a lot has changed at Uber in recent weeks. Hornsey said she has held more than 200 listening sessions with employees across the organization as a means of hearing their concerns. Uber now serves free dinner at 7 p.m. rather than 8:15, so that employees can take advantage of the perk without working well into the evening. While it was once a stated company value to work harder, longer, and smarter, Hornsey and her team “eradicated the word ‘longer,’” she said. “I thought that was both symbolic and rather important.” Hornsey told BuzzFeed News the company is planning to soon begin paying engineers extra for working on-call shifts, and will offer employees reimbursements up to a specific threshold for not just gym memberships, but also massages and relaxation therapy.

Hornsey insists Uber is committed to correcting course on employee wellness. “It is very much my belief that we will leapfrog much of what you find in corporate America,” she told BuzzFeed News. But for some Uber employees, the mea culpas, work-life balance surveys, and vows to do better come too little, too late.

“You can’t change the culture. It’s set,” said a former senior employee. “Travis can’t hire Eric Holder or Arianna Huffington and change the culture of a 10,000-person company. It’s unrealistic. People pay lip service to change knowing it’s not coming.”

Bruno Levy / Redux

Even its most outspoken critics agree that Uber has dramatically and irrevocably changed the way the world gets around. But the company’s great breakthrough isn’t the concept of cars on demand, or even the technology that enables it. It’s an accelerated restructuring of the American labor force and dramatic redefinition of the future of work. In Uber’s vision, work time is elastic, workers are expendable, and the workday itself has no clear start or end. The individual is uniquely responsible for their own financial success, and the company achieves maximum output without having to compensate people for their downtime.

For drivers, this means accepting ride after ride with cash bonuses, hourly incentives, and a five-star rating system in which drivers are expected to maintain at least a 4.7-star rating. Without those drivers, their cars, and the millions of miles they’ve driven, Uber wouldn’t exist. But all that work has cost Uber very little — drivers receive no benefits, pay their own income taxes, and earn, based on Uber’s estimation, wages that are roughly equivalent to an employee at McDonald’s. Uber revolutionized work by turning people into flexible, mobile, iPhone-wielding, car-driving widgets. It is a machine for squeezing value out of people — and that applies as much to its many thousands of drivers as to the 14,000 corporate employees working in offices around the globe.

Like many companies of its kind, Uber attracts the best and the brightest by pitching itself as a pure meritocracy, a place where best thinkers and hardest workers are richly rewarded. Meritocracy — the tech-industry-beloved organizational ethos that assumes everyone, regardless of gender, race, or economic background, has an equal chance of success — was one of Uber’s now-abandoned 14 core values. As one former employee said, explaining why he joined the company, it seemed like a “libertarian playground where the best would rise to the top.” But, he said, “I quickly realized that environment also means work becomes a blood sport.”

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Working seven days a week, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m., was considered normal, said one employee. Another recalled her manager telling her that spending 70 to 80 hours a week in the office was simply “how Uber works.” Someone else recalled working 80 to 100 hours a week. (Uber disputed that it is common for employees to work seven days a week, and emphasized that it is in the midst of changing expectations surrounding work hours.)

Those who apply with the best proposals are rewarded by a chance to join the company’s annual “workcation,” typically between Christmas and New Year’s, during which employees brainstorm product ideas. Workcation is seen as a perk — even though employees pay their own airfare and commit to working over the holiday, Uber offers daily stipends for meals and transportation. (One former employee described it as the opportunity to “go to an island paradise and lock yourself in a room to code for 12 hours a day.”)

“You were always on the clock,” said one former program manager. He said he never took a vacation day, though he did take a personal day once because of stress. When he came in the next day, his manager pulled him into a conference room and told him that “taking that personal day was really not a great idea,” he told BuzzFeed News. Someone else remembered being asked to work through a high fever for two days at the implicit request of a teammate, despite sending an email saying they needed to take the day off.

“I never even thought of spending the weekend not working,” said one employee. Another said it “was a problem” with management that he left work at 6:30 or 7 to be with his family.

“It’s overwhelming to be told, ‘We’re the top startup, we’re killing it, we’re expanding to China,’ and all this other stuff, and to be asked to work weekends and pour hours in,” said a former employee. “I feel so broken and dead.”

“Travis used to always talk about redlining,” said one former employee, referring to the practice of driving a car at maximum speed. “Once it starts to get to the top of the meter, it gets in the red zone, which means your engine is about to explode. If you weren’t redlining, you weren’t working hard enough.”

Indeed, many employees attribute the company’s hard-charging culture to its recently ousted CEO. “The mentality is to find your line and keep pushing it,” one employee said. “You can’t say in every instance ‘Travis did it!’ But the overall culture… I feel like he shaped it that way.”

Ironically, Uber board member and media mogul Arianna Huffington — a Kalanick ally who served as one of the company’s public faces as it grappled with the harassment investigation — has built her brand in recent years around the importance of sleep. She is the CEO of a wellness company called Thrive Global, and copies of her book, The Sleep Revolution, were often available in piles on tables in Uber offices. Huffington even went so far as to attribute the company’s recent scandal to a “workplace culture fueled by burnout.”

“For me, it’s kind of like a joke,” said one former employee of Huffington’s contributions on the topic of sleep.

“I don’t understand how you can have a course on work-life balance with Travis up there talking about how he never stops working,” a current employee said.

Some Uber employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News felt that given how fast the company was growing during certain periods, the level of stress and the pressure to be constantly working made sense, even felt necessary. But one former operations employee who worked in New York speculated that an atmosphere of constant fire drills was simply Uber’s business model.

“In college I took several business classes, and one was about Southeast Asian business. The professor said … there’s this spectrum of stress level. You want workers to be as stressed as possible, but not over the line where they’re going to do something like light themselves on fire outside the factory,” he said. “It felt a little bit like that was what they were trying to do at Uber.”

Uber’s office during a driver recruitment event in Hong Kong, Dec. 29, 2015.

Tyrone Siu / Reuters

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