Uber, Sexual Harassment, and the Stanford Prison Experiment

In February Uber Engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post reflecting on her year at Uber – a year rife with sexual harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, her year was also rife with ignored complaints made to HR because offenders were high performers. Her post took the world by storm, and Uber has responded with an investigation (currently being conducted).

No doubt, Uber will eventually release some sort of diversity and inclusion (D&I) plan to show the world they are taking Susan’s claims seriously, much like celebrities check themselves into rehab after a drunken debacle.

The first question is, how does something like what Susan described even happen?

The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 provides a good answer. Researcher Philip Zimbardo sought to understand if the situation outside of us – the institution – controls our behavior, or if our values and morality allows us to rise above a negative environment. He turned the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department into a mock prison, and randomly selected research participants (Stanford students) to serve as prisoners or prison guards.

According to the outcome of this particular study, the situation outside of us – the institution – controls our behavior. Some of the guards became unruly and even abusive. They truly lived up to the role they had been assigned inside this institution. And the non-abusive guards went along with it; they never spoke up against the abusive guards.

Even Zimbardo himself got caught up in the institution. As he played the role of prison warden his role of researcher seemed to fade away. It took a colleague having an emotional breakdown for him to take a step back and realize the damage he was causing his research participants. He shut the experiment down early.

In the same vein, we might guess that the HR folks at Uber, who Susan reported the sexual harassment and discrimination to, were in a situation where the institution controlled their behavior. Like the prison guards who never spoke up against the abusers, Uber’s HR team was caught up in their role as it existed inside the culture of Uber.

At this point we can only hope that Uber’s D&I plan will take reasonable steps to solve Uber’s harassment and discrimination issues. But I predict it will not be enough.

The D&I report will likely list actions Uber will take to hire in more women, and new procedures for reporting and resolving harassment complaints. It may even discuss plans for training programs on the topics of harassment and discrimination, as well as diversity and inclusion.

While those steps will be steps in the right direction, unless the D&I plan includes a strategic plan for changing Uber’s culture, it won’t make much of a difference. I say that because most D&I plans focus on the D – diversity. Many do not focus on the I – Inclusion, although inclusion is truly more important.

So here’s a vocabulary lesson for Uber:

Managing diversity – which is what I suspect Uber’s report will focus on – is a compliance thing. It means an organization is taking steps to successfully “manage” diversity.  If you “manage” diversity you probably claim to be an equal opportunity employer, your anti-harassment policies are up to date, you try to avoid biases in your interviews, and you have a plan to hire in more others (in Uber’s case others will refer to women).

Inclusion, however, is a choice. It means you seek to include others in everything you do. Inclusion is a choice to create a culture of respect, professionalism, and equality. To truly solve the problem of sexual harassment at Uber, a plan to create a culture of inclusion is in order.

Tolerance is another word we see a lot in reference to diversity. Why people use this word is beyond me. I tolerate the annoying lady behind me in line at the grocery store who keeps bumping into me with her shopping cart. This isn’t a good reference point when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion.

Let’s replace tolerate with celebrate, and in order for Uber to truly fix their culture, they’ll need initiatives in place that provide the opportunity to do just that. Instead of brushing up on their sexual harassment policies and providing sexual harassment training programs, as their D&I report will no doubt require, Uber would be wise to set up programs that will bring more women into the organization. They might consider creating a women leadership program, offering scholarships to women who want to major in engineering, and offering an employer resource group for women.

The culture has to change – it has to be about inclusion and celebration of differences. When a woman has a child, for example, instead of tolerating that she’s on leave for three months, Uber should celebrate with her and ask her what her needs are. When any employee needs a day off due to a religious holiday, instead of tolerating that he’ll be absent, celebrate with him and invite him to share insight about the holiday with the rest of the office. When one employee is celebrating Pride Week, instead of tolerating the pride flag taped to her cubicle wall, celebrate with her and find out how you and the rest of the office can participate too.

Inclusion means you invite people to be themselves and that self is celebrated.

Check out my course on Diversity & Inclusion at Lynda.com (though, admittedly, it is entitled, “Managing Diversity”). If you don’t already have an account, you can get a free 10-day trial there from my webpage (and view my other Lynda.com courses).
Sincerely,
Catherine