Training Can't Cure Toxic - the UBER Edition

Years ago, I worked in commercial real estate in a small brokerage house on the outskirts of Hollywood. 

I wasn't a particularly good broker, though I did get better over time. Our office was 90% young men making 10% of the firm's revenue and 10% old men (the Partners) who made the other 90%. Like residential real estate, commercial real estate brokers work on 100% commission and in my office, the strange mix of bravado, short-term success, and nearly daily panic was always in the air. 

After a few months of working at my firm, I realized that part of the success of the Partners in our firm was how they would use younger agents as poorly paid (or unpaid) labor for most of their deals. Partners would keep large deals amongst themselves but would use younger agents to do the majority of the legwork for their small to mid-sized deals, in return for a small percentage of the commission. Likewise, If a younger broker could secure a bigger listing, Partners would often stipulate that they needed to get a cut, either due to the nature of the deal, some prior relationship or just to “mentor” the younger agent. This was a common practice in my firm and in nearly every firm I knew. Partners often pulled in huge commissions for deals in which they were barely involved. Additionally, as the Partners were often unassailable in their positions, that led us younger brokers arguing over the splits in our reduced commissions, like hermit crabs fighting over a tasty morsel left by a shark. 

“This is wrong!” I lamented each time I got screwed from a commission by a Partner. I told myself that when I had the experience to bring in bigger deals, I would be fair and decent to the younger agents. I would push for more protections for those that were starting out. The firm could change. 

But, after awhile I realized that it was useless. The only people who could change the firm were the Partners, and they had no incentive to do so. There was no workshop or executive training course that would make them respond differently than they already were. They had a great setup and made lots of money while a steady stream of young, impressionable agents ground through the office. Occasionally, a young agent would persevere and end up sticking around, but the majority lasted only a few months before moving on to other firms or other industries. Eventually, I moved on to my current career. I realized then: You can’t change the culture of a company if the leadership sees no benefit from it. 

In recent weeks, I’ve read a lot about the challenges facing Uber and other Silicon Valley firms as they struggle to become less toxic, more inclusive and fairer to their workforce. Unfortunately, company cultures rarely change from a few key position changes or the ceremonial sacrifice of a leader. As an example, Uber is a company that for 7 years hired employees based on the values of its leader, Travis Kalanick, who sometimes seems to revel in his reputation as a real-life Bond villain. I’m surprised there are no pictures of him in a high leather-backed chair in a white suit stroking a cat. 

In the now infamous blog post by Susan J. Fowler about her time at Uber, she wrote about a pervasive "bro" culture that ignored numerous improprieties and offenses and an office environment that seemed to revel in back-stabbing, gamesmanship and petty competitions. And though Kalanick may have lost his position, the culture of Uber is still very much a reflection of the values that he helped define. It seems that maybe Kalanick has realized that he went too far, now that he’s lost control of the organization that he created, though the recent news of his continued machinations to take out his foes on the Uber Board suggest otherwise.

I hope other companies continue to take note of Uber's failings and work to set a different, more positive example. Because until leaders are willing to change, their company cultures won’t.