Uber’s diversity debacle offers lessons in DE&I engagement

Employees expressed concern about a pair of discussions that centered around white women.
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Ride-sharing company Uber has been working to increase its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives since co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down in 2017 amid allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

But the company recently faced backlash from its staff over “Don’t Call Me Karen,” a series of events focusing on “the spectrum of the American white woman’s experience,” according to the New York Times. The “Karen” persona refers to a meme that gained traction in 2020 and was used to describe entitled white women who harass people of color.

After Uber employees expressed concerns about the event, arguing it was insensitive to people of color, the company’s diversity chief, Bo Young Lee, was put on a leave of absence, according to the Times. Lee has been with the company since 2018.

The debacle highlights the importance of engaging in regular dialogue with employees and soliciting their feedback before spearheading efforts that could offend staff, according to DE&I professionals.

Seek feedback to prevent a backlash. The situation at Uber is “an example of what happens when organizations don’t have systematic and ongoing conversation between their managers and leaders, and underrepresented groups,” Dave Wilkin, founder and CEO of Ten Thousand Coffees, a skills development platform focused on diversity, mentoring, and networking, told HR Brew.

He likened having conversations about inclusivity to building muscle memory: “It’s something you kind of have to work on every single day.”

While organizations often expect diversity chiefs to lead these conversations, they don’t always provide them with the right tools to navigate such discussions, or to measure their impact, Wilkin said. “I think we’ve now learned that we need to really measure it in real time, so we can get ahead” of conversations that aren’t well-received by staff, he added.

Colin H. Mincy, former chief people officer at Human Rights Watch, echoed the importance of “listening to staff sentiment particularly on matters as sensitive as race and diversity” in a post on LinkedIn.

DE&I faces steep challenges. Desiree Morton, a DE&I leader and co-founder of Aginci, a platform focused on inclusive benefits, told HR Brew via email that there’s no doubt diversity chiefs like Lee are held to a higher standard than other executives—and that’s because the work is important, and the stakes are high.

“At the same time, the standards cannot be so high that a day-to-day error in judgment or controversial decision leads to being put on leave and discussed, publicly,” she said.

Morton said she wasn’t sure putting Lee on leave would “repair the negative impact caused by her actions.”

The incident comes at a challenging time for DE&I overall. Diversity programs are falling out of favor at many companies, a recent report by consulting firm DDI found. The share of companies without DE&I programs increased from 15% in 2020 to 20% when the survey was conducted in 2023.

Uber did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

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