What the Uber "Joke" Costs You

You may have read about the recent "joke" made by now a former Uber board member, investor David Bonderman.   (Read the story HERE.)

If this moment happens in your company...

As a consultant I am regularly in small rooms with top executives.  My role is delicate.  I am both an outsider and not an outsider.  I am there to advise but also confront.  I was present for one of these moments last year.  Like Huffington, I also laughed awkwardly.  The inappropriate comment was made by someone who was a colleague and not one I worked with directly--somewhat similar to the Uber situation.

A couple of thoughts:

1) My god I wish I were smart enough and fast enough and not so well trained to laugh politely that I could call this out in the moment.  When it happens with someone below me on the leadership chain, or with someone I work with directly, I'm a ninja.  Fast and adept and appropriate.  I know how to stop and correct in the moment without unduly shaming or embarrassing someone.  There are levels of inappropriateness and I respond appropriately. 

But with people who are colleagues, the offensive and inappropriate but not grossly threatening or illegal, so often made as a "joke," is harder to respond to.  I am a VERY strong person and professional, confident and clear.  AND, I have a few decades of training by society that teaches me that if I respond too aggressively I will be told I am overreacting or that I need to lighten up.  My own credibility and professionalism will be open to questioning and attack.

These events are social interactions even though they occur in professional settings.  And social interactions, group dynamics, and human relationships are all deeply influenced and informed by the power dynamics at play.

2) When YOU are the person in power, it’s on YOU to shut it down.

3) As a man in that room you have greater freedom, as a colleague, to speak out against such a comment.  Use it.  The same would be true about my role as a white woman if the comment were racist or if another woman made a derogatory comment about men.  ALL of us have a right to speak up and certainly an obligation to do so if we are in positions of authority.  AND it is true of human nature that it is easier and more effective for an authority figure or peer to confront a cultural wrong.

4) Stop saying this crap.  Stop letting other people say this crap.  Good talent is hard to find and harder to keep.  You need all the best people you can find and they need to be free to do the best work they can do.  Can you really afford to have a culture that artificially holds women or minorities back?  Can you really afford to loose good people to stupid jokes? 

The workplace can and should be a place where all people behave professionally and respectfully and can expect to be treated the same way.  Legally you are obligated to ensure that it is.  But from a simple profit standpoint, you need more great people than you currently have.  And great people come in a wide range of genders, races, sexual preferences, and personalities. You need a culture that welcomes and supports them--not one that attacks them in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

More often than not, if you DO have a jackass in your midst, the kind of person who makes these jokes, they are NOT great.  They may have some kind of talent or skill.  But if they’re not able to behave like a reasonable person in a professional environment, if they really don’t see a problem with the stupid jokes, if they believe deep down that people of certain genders or faiths or race or sexual preferences are just better or worse than others, THEY WILL ACT ACCORDINGLY.  They will make some people feel unwelcome and some people feel uncomfortable and some people feel unsafe.  Their behavior will communicate a message that some bad things are o.k. here.  They will undermine good standards and violate other norms.  They will be the jackass they are.  And it will cost you. The "joke" is never free.

I don't know David Bonderman.  I'd never heard his name before two days ago.  Maybe he is an innocent man who said something stupid in an awkward moment during a stressful time.  But if you look at the report on the Uber culture, they are a company that has tolerated too many jokes for too long.  David Bonderman may or may not be a jackass.  But Uber clearly has them and has tolerated them.  Some of the cost will be obvious--the fees paid to sort out the mess, the lost productivity and leaders are fired and need to be replaced.  Some will be harder to see, people who left long ago, those that won't consider taking those jobs, customers lost to the bad coverage.  These are unnecessary, stupid, EXPENSIVE mistakes.  The jokes are never free and the jackass can never create enough value to make up for what they cost you.  

(Yes I understand there are ugly personalities like Steve Jobs who were harsh with damn near everyone but also a genius who created billions in value.  You are not Steve Jobs.  Neither is your jackass.)