While it’s only just now March, for Uber, 2017 is already shaping up to be a horrible, no good, very bad year – something of an annus horribilis for a company that not all that long ago was seen as a seemingly unstoppable burgeoning tech behemoth.
Its meteoric rise to prominence, fueled by soaring valuations, hockey stick monetization model and brand ubiquity, was perhaps unprecedented even by the heady standards of Silicon Valley.
Perhaps no other company served as the poster child for startup success, or cipher for the possibilities inherent to the emerging “sharing economy” quite like Uber. That the company became synonymous with the category it helped define proved, at first, to be a significant advantage.
Uber was inventing the future, and the company was widely hailed by most press, partners and end users alike as the gold standard for the gig economy.
Pick Up Lines.
Sure, there was some bad press about what drivers actually got paid, or about how user information was being collected and utilized. But for the most part, Uber appeared to be coasting to a record IPO and inevitably, world domination (at least outside China and France).
Most consumers were staunch supporters and brand advocates of the app even as potential storm clouds continued to surface, considering the cost savings and convenience Uber offered benefits which imminently justified the small potatoes stories and attack pieces occasionally popping up in the press. These issues seemed to be really nothing more than the natural growing pains for a company in hyper growth.
These early lessons learned, turns out, were not isolated hiccups or anomalous incidents. They were, in fact, only the tip of an iceberg whose depths we’re all still discovering. Obviously, Uber’s recent foibles have been well documented, from the #DeleteUber campaign that cost them half a million users to their much publicized trouncing by Chinese competitor (er, “partner”) Didi Chuxing, forcing them out of the world’s fastest growing market.
But one story, of course, stands out, particularly for those of us who happen to work in HR. If you’re a recruiter, in particular, there are quite a few takeaways from this cautionary tale, but one thing sticks out in particular: always learn as much about a candidate as you can before making a hire.
Because as Uber recently reminded us all, the cost of one bad hire can be too great for any employer to bear. It just takes one bad recruiting decision to push an entire business to the brink – and if it can happen at a company like Uber, it can happen to you, too.
Consider this a cautionary tale – and a wake up call.
Taken For A Ride.
A little backstory. In January 2016, Uber hired former Google executive Amit Singhal to be its new SVP of Engineering – a big feat.
Singhal was hired to “solve the puzzle” and things were looking up for the guy who looked like he retired from Google after heading up the most lucrative division of Google, Search.
Now a year later, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick asked for Singhal’s resignation. Why?
Because the reason for Singhal’s Google retirement was due to credible allegations of sexual harassment, a dispute Singhal did not disclose to Uber. Sexual harassment at Uber?
Think of that for a minute – automatic liability.
So recruiters, what do you need to learn from this? Do your homework.
While Uber claims that they did an extensive background check on Singhal before his hire, it wasn’t enough to prevent what the company itself has described as a “failing culture.”
The Sharing Economy: 3 Recruiting Lessons From An Uber Termination.
Here are some easy steps you can take to make sure that what happened at the ride sharing giant isn’t a shared experience:
1. Start With A Simple Search.
Use Google. And, I mean, you’ve got to really search the search engine beyond simply looking at the top ranking results to get the sort of information that’s likely to sink you – the first ranked results are probably pretty common knowledge.
Take the time to review at least the first few pages of results when doing recruited related research, and really google Google (yeah, the irony is not lost).
Today, if a startup wanted to hire Singhal, they’re not going to have to look very hard to uncover the skeletons in his closet, particularly the very public allegations surrounding his tenure at Uber and the reason for his separation.
Not every candidate has similar coverage and content about their previous professional and personal history, though, and know there’s no such thing as “Feeling Lucky” (to use Google’s nomenclature) when it comes to pre-hire due diligence. Because you never know what else you might find – and in the age of the Internet, the truth is always out there. You just have to do some digging.
You’ll probably never see any immediate red flags for the candidates you’re considering, but as Singhal showed, the time and effort this process takes is an opportunity cost no company can afford to pass up.
Remember: it only takes one bad hire. And you don’t want to be the recruiter of record when that happens.
2. Ask Questions After The Initial Interview.
Ask if an employee has ever been involved in any sort of dispute at work that involved the intervention of either Human Resources or Employee Relations.
If the answer is affirmative, make sure you understand exactly what the details of the investigation entailed and how it was resolved.
It’s unlikely they’ll be too eager to share details, so you may need to explicitly ask about the nature of the offense in question; if it involves allegations of harassment, this should serve as a red flag, regardless of culpability.
That’s not to say this should preempt an offer, but the onus is on you to ensure that the candidate does not have a pattern of this behavior, because ultimately the liability for their actions will fall on your company should they succeed in receiving an offer. That’s a pretty big chance for TA to take on any candidate, regardless of skill set or experience.
Obviously this is a sensitive topic, no matter who was accused or how it was handled, and it’s not your job to assign guilt – only to assess relative risk. This should be done as late in the hiring process as possible, ideally while conducting any other required preemployment background and reference checks your company performs before extending an offer.
Ideally, you should not be the person running point on this due diligence; have another hiring stakeholder, like an HRBP or another recruiting team member assist with the investigation. It’s imperative, however, that the hiring manager is not informed of this back office background checking unless it’s to inform them you’re unable to extend the offer due to the circumstances.
This outcome is rare, so you probably want to ensure that what happens in HR stays in HR unless you have irrefutable evidence preempting your ability to extend an offer of employment. When in doubt, always seek legal advice and proceed with caution.
3. Try To Develop Backdoor References.
Ask any recruiter, and they’ll tell you what everyone already knows: when candidates provide their own list of references, those references are almost universally past colleagues and connections who will provide positive feedback and platitudes about the candidate in question.
Reference checks are designed to limit liability, so if you have information a candidate may have a black mark on their permanent professional record, it’s your job to uncover this during this part of the process.
Many background check providers will not uncover HR infractions during their due diligence, largely because their access to information is limited to publicly available information, and few internal investigations are ever elevated outside the company or litigated outside of binding arbitration.
This makes this sort of tricky, but developing independent references is a great way to get the information you need discreetly and as part of the background check process. It’s a small world, after all, and it’s not hard to find either a mutual connection or previous coworker who might provide additional insight into the candidate and the incident in question.
It’s essential when you contact these references not to imply or lead their responses nor provide any information about the specific claim you’re investigating. Simply ask if there’s anything you need to know about the candidate or something similarly open ended. You’re unlikely to get any explicit information, but subtext is everything.
Any hesitancy or equivocation, such as “I’m not legally allowed to say anything about what happened,” or, “I don’t really want to get into that,” for example, are signs you might want to dig a little deeper during the background check process.
It’s by no means a suggestion of wrongdoing, but you’d be amazed at how much these references can often tell you without saying anything at all. Just stay on your toes and try to get as much information as possible without being too proactive.
Remember: you’re not a detective, you’re an HR professional. You want to indemnify your employer, not convict your candidates.
Sexual harassment has long dominated the national news and discourse, from Presidential politics to the tech industry to college campuses and beyond. It’s a pervasive problem, and a hot button issue, but the important thing is to ensure that it doesn’t happen in your company. Period.
Recruiters have to hire the best talent. That’s our job. But so too is finding fit, and no company should ever hire anyone who could create an unsafe work environment for your other employees, or harm your company culture or brand, as happened with Uber.
No one deserves to be harassed, but if you’re a recruiter who fails to preempt a hire with a history of these behaviors, you’re essentially enabling and condoning whatever happens after they’re hired. Because as important as finding the right candidate can be, recruiters should remember that their job is also to ensure that you don’t hire the wrong ones, either.
Uber learned the hard way. You shouldn’t have to.
About the Author:
Kate Bischoff advises organizations in a wide range of industries on employment law and human resources issues, from recruitment and workplace culture to terminations. Kate is passionate about improving company culture and using technology (social media and data analytics) in the workplace. Kate speaks from experience when advising clients when administrative and court matters commence.
Prior to founding tHRive Law & Consulting, Ms. Bischoff served as a Human Resources Officer for the United States Department of State at the U.S. Embassy Lusaka, Zambia and for the U.S. Consulate General Jerusalem. Kate is also an Adjunct Professor at Mitchell Hamline, serving as faculty for the School of Law’s HR Compliance Certificate Program.