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Uber Orders Investigation Into Sexual Harassment Claims


There's a new scandal facing the ride-hailing app Uber. Over the weekend, a former employee published a blog post that went viral. The employee, who is a software engineer, made a number of allegations about Uber, including that she faced sexual harassment from her manager. Now Uber says former Attorney General Eric Holder is joining the independent investigation requested by the company's CEO. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In almost 3,000 words, Susan Fowler details, quote, "a strange, fascinating and slightly horrifying story." She writes that on her first day working with an engineering team at Uber, her manager sent her chat messages saying he was looking for women to have sex with. So, she says, she took a screenshot of those messages and filed a report to Uber's human resources department.

JOAN WILLIAMS: So this employee did exactly what employees are supposed to do if they are propositioned on the job.

WANG: That was Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She read Fowler's blog post, and says if Fowler's allegations are true, Uber's HR department did not follow the law. According to Fowler, HR and upper management at Uber told her that they wouldn't feel comfortable beyond giving her manager a warning and a stern talking to. The reason, she writes, was because he was a, quote, "high performer" and this was his, quote, "first offense." So, Fowler says, she was given two choices - to join another team at Uber or stay with the manager and risk a poor performance review.

WILLIAMS: Giving people a choice between transfer out of your area of expertise or get a poor performance evaluation, that's an adverse employment action based on her sex. That is so illegal. If true, that is just so illegal.

WANG: In her blog posts, Fowler goes on to describe how she tried to bring her complaint higher up the management chain, while later learning that other women at the company had also reported the same manager for inappropriate behavior. That manager, she writes, eventually parted with Uber. And Fowler transferred within the company, but she claims she faced other incidents of gender discrimination and retaliation before she finally left.

Uber declined NPR's interview requests. But in a written statement, its CEO Travis Kalanick says he was unaware of Fowler's allegations until he read her blog post and that, quote, "what she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in." An internal investigation is underway. As for Susan Fowler, her next steps are unclear. She has not responded to NPR's interview requests. But John Winer, an attorney in Oakland, Calif., who specializes in sexual harassment lawsuits, says she has a strong case.

JOHN WINER: If I was in her position and the evidence is as strong as she presents it, I definitely think that she should bring a case. It is the only way Uber's going to learn their lesson.

WANG: Uber has faced its share of controversy. Earlier this month, Travis Kalanick resigned from President Donald Trump's economic advisory council after a consumer campaign to boycott Uber. That came after the company dropped its prices during a strike by New York City taxi drivers who are protesting Trump's travel ban.

Uber's CEO was also criticized for joking during a GQ Magazine interview published three years ago that women on demand are called, quote, "Boober" (ph). Freada Kapor Klein is an Uber shareholder through her investment fund. She helped start Project Include, a campaign to bring more diversity to the tech industry.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: Tech in particular has patted itself on the back and said, we're post-racial, we're post-discrimination, and that's not the case at all. Things that I see going on by 20-somethings and 30-somethings in tech companies are as bad as anything that ever went on in the '70s and '80s.

WANG: Kapor Klein says startups need to make sure there are safe and effective channels for employees to report discrimination internally. Otherwise, there may be more posts on blogs and social media for the public to see. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.