March 03, 2017

Consultants Explain Why an Ombuds Could Have Helped Uber Steer Clear of Sexual Harassment Crisis

ADR consultants Amanda Dean and Seanan Fong offer their insights on the recent sexual harassment crisis at Uber in an article published earlier this week. Dean and Fong point out four organizational design failures at Uber: The signal ceiling; Fairness and empathy failure; No way to challenge existing conventions; and Perverse effects of well-intentioned cultural values. They explain that an Organizational Ombuds would, "connect the dots, identify trends, and report those upward to the highest level."

The authors helpfully explain how an Ombuds would accomplish this:
Administering to Fowler. If Uber had a properly established ombuds, Fowler would know she had somewhere to turn as a parallel resource to HR and management. In her confidential visit with the ombuds, she could get help getting clarity on what the issues are, what matters in resolving them, and what Fowler’s options for resolution are — within the company and without. If an ombuds had been available to Fowler, Fowler would have found an understanding yet impartial ear that could help her navigate her situation with clarity and confidence — and maybe not have left the company with such resentment.
Administering to the HR person. If it’s the case that the HR person’s hands were tied by the unwritten norms protecting Fowler’s alleged harasser, the HR person could also seek the ombuds for help resolving this issue in a proper way and, at the very least, to think through her options and make sure the ombuds receives that data point. If an ombuds had been available to the HR person, she may have found more creative ways to ensure a more appropriate response to Fowler’s complaint.
Connecting the dots and relaying anonymized signal. If other women came to the ombuds with similar complaints — as existed according to Fowler’s article — the ombuds would be able to connect the dots and relay the confidential, anonymized, aggregated signal to the CEO (while protecting, of course, the full anonymity of any parties involved). If truly the case, the ombuds could relay the facts privately: “There is a trend of women reporting harassment and a trend of reports of harassment being suppressed.” Then the CEO could take appropriate action. If an ombuds had been available to Uber CEO Kalanick, he may have gotten the signal he needed before it exploded into damaging PR mess and legal risk.
Troubleshooting culture. Because the ombuds has unique access to these confidential inputs, the ombuds can do deep dives (root cause analyses) on the issues that they present, and relay that signal (again, completely anonymized) to the CEO. In this case, the ombuds might dig deeper into how the cultural value of “meritocracy” has, instead of encouraging hard, smart work, perversely encouraged deception (in HR) and, possibly, immunity for “high performers.”
This kind of insight and analysis are often missing from articles that advocate for Ombuds. (Medium.)

Related post: Huffington Post Blogger: Uber Sexual Harassment Charge Shows Need for Ombuds.

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