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Uber brings in ex attorney general as it faces sexism claims

View profile for Amy Douthwaite

After having lost its case in the employment tribunal late last year, gig economy business Uber are now facing more woes. Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler recently posted a blog which detailed a number of disturbing instances of sexual harassment and discrimination during her time with the company.

The alleged offences included her new manager making sexual advances towards her almost as soon as she had commenced work there, the company not taking any action against him and various instances of poor treatment that were as a result of her being female. If Susan Fowler’s allegations are substantiated the conduct described does seem to suggest an institutional problem at Uber, with HR failing to adequately deal with complaints raised by employees.

Consequently, Uber has launched a probe into the allegations, instructing a law firm led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to carry out an investigation within the business. 

The tech giant is doing the right thing in taking such an action in order to understand the issues and the risks that it faces.  Given the international nature of the business, it would be prudent to extend the investigation beyond the US to their worldwide locations as such issues may not be limited to America. 

There are likely to be different legal risks in different countries, but in the UK these allegations should be taken seriously given the legal protection available to employees. Where an individual raises complaints about their treatment, not only is an employer at risk if the substance of the allegations is true, but it can also be at risk if it fails to deal adequately (or at all with the allegations). In the current situation, it appears that unacceptable treatment by line managers has been exacerbated by HR’s approach to the complaints. In the UK, this would expose an employer to potential claims for constructive unfair dismissal, sex discrimination, harassment, bullying and also victimisation, which is known in the US as retaliation. Claims for discrimination and victimisation can be particularly expensive as compensation for these claims is uncapped.

As these allegations have been so public, and if such discriminatory behaviour within the company is systemic, this may lead to employees in the UK coming forward with similar complaints.  This could in turn lead to grievances and Employment Tribunal claims if they are not resolved.  Of course, any allegation has to be substantiated to be upheld, but evidence of the mistreatment of other employees could be used to support arguments of an ingrained cultural problem at Uber in claims by other similarly affected employees.

Women are notoriously under-represented in the tech sector in the UK, leading to a number of recent initiatives to encourage more women into the sector; these sorts of headlines are unlikely to help change this.