The Most Important Uber Ride – the Culture Norm Journey [Session Summary]

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The following article is a short summary of a presentation at The CHRO Virtual Summit by Liane Hornsey, the SVP & CHRO at Uber.

Throughout 2017 and into 2018, Uber has undergone a process of shifting its organizational culture following a series of high-profile allegations of sexual harassment against employees, and the widely circulated suggestions that Uber’s workplace culture was “toxic”. At the head of this transformation was Liane Hornsey, the incumbent SVP & CHRO. Hornsey was tasked with ensuring Uber was able to shift its culture and move into a new reality, and in the process, restore some of the damage done to the organization’s workforce, reputation, and performance.

Hornsey describes that the first step in approaching any significant cultural shift is to sit down and properly consider the definition of culture, because it’s probably neither a definition that’s immediately clear to all, or agreed upon by all. Hornsey uses the term ‘calcification’ to describe how cultures generally form, in the sense that a company just seems to gradually find its form over time as attitudes, behaviors, and norms become second nature. She suggests that most cultures are set by the attitudes and actions of the company founder and the first significant hires, especially in start-up situations where they have significant influence. By the time the first 50-100 employees are in place, it’s extremely difficult to change a culture, unless there is a concerted effort by top leaders to make a dramatic shift. In Uber’s case, the calcification of the culture happened very early, and established many of the accepted patterns that would later trouble it.
“Culture is always stronger than the individual”
How do you change a culture?

Hornsey describes that the most fundamental starting point for any cultural transformation, is that it should be approached with the same mindset and execution as any business strategy. This means having a long term strategy, a rigorous planning methodology, clear stakeholder management and accountability, visible ties to business goals, focused execution, tight program management, continuous communication, ongoing iteration, and detailed measurement. Having an ad-hoc approach is simply not going to work, and especially not in an organization that’s already quite large.

In the case of Uber, Hornsey’s initial interactions with employees highlighted to her that she really had to spend time listening to and understanding their thoughts. To canvas feelings, Hornsey was engaged in over 200 individual listening sessions globally with employees. In these sessions, it became clear that there were a lot of existing positives about the company, along with the obvious negatives. This was a particularly important step for Uber, as it became evident in these interviews that Uber’s previous HR related processes were simply underdeveloped, and had never been formed with a detailed strategy in mind.

After finishing the consultation process, Hornsey found that there were nine key areas employees wanted to change, which were then grouped under four strategic change themes; hiring, first year, development, and people systems. Within each of these four change areas, HR used three ‘lenses’ (Uber Culture, Diversity & Inclusion, and Employer Brand/EVP) to analyse existing practices and the proposed new alternatives. However, in order to not simply impose any new changes on employees, Uber involved the employees themselves in the design of the new changes by letting them propose and vote on which initiatives to keep, throw away, or redesign. Hornsey considers this process a great success, not only because of the positive outcomes, but because the process itself fundamentally involved all employees and gave them a stake in the growth of a new culture.
“it’s quite easy to change the systems and processes, it wasn’t actually hard for us to achieve equal pay in the aggregate, it wasn’t even that hard for us to change our performance management system – which was a huge change – what is hard is to inspire people as you are making those changes”
Once the initial re-design had taken place, it was essential that the change plan was broken down into its core parts and manageable chunks so that employees had the ability to work on the things need to be changed each day. Hornsey says that while Uber’s desired changes may seem obvious and employees might be ‘on-board’ with them, it’s what you do to bring people along with you that matters, to ensure the behaviors actually move. Thus, the behavioral framework that you develop must sit aside the systemic changes the whole way through the process.

Finally, one of the most important elements in this entire process is what Hornsey describes as the “moment in time opportunity”. For Uber, this moment arose after the scandals of the last few years – but for other organizations, capturing this moment is critical to catalyze any movement towards change. It can be an open door to help make the changes required – Hornsey’s advice to all HR leaders is that you have to act fast to grasp it.

If you missed Liane’s presentation (or indeed any others), you can sign up on The CHRO Virtual Summit website for free and view it until June 30th!

The 3rd HR Congress Brussels, November 27-28 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore this topic and much more! Make sure you follow The HR Congress Blog and #HRCongress18 to stay posted on all the latest news, updates and content from the world of work!

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