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Uber's Handling of Susan Fowler Scandal Will Determine Its Fate

Uber needs to conduct a thorough and open investigation and quickly dismiss employees who participated or failed to report sexual harassment, experts say.
Image: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, India, in January 2016.Danish Siddiqui - Reuters

A new scandal is giving #DeleteUber a fresh spin.

The popular ride-sharing app's alleged mishandling of sexual harassment complaints has once again placed the company under public scrutiny as it scrambles to investigate where management may have failed its employees.

"They have gone from frat party to real company over the last couple of years, and I think it is an institutional and cultural challenge for them," Richard Levick, founder and CEO of Levick, a global communications firm specializing in crisis communications, told NBC News.
"In terms of their immediate crisis response, their instincts are good," Levick said. "They are doing exactly the right thing."

Related: Uber Hires Eric Holder to Investigate Sexual Harassment Claims

In a blog post titled "Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber," Susan Fowler, a prominent former engineer at Uber, described "an organization in complete, unrelenting chaos."

Fowler alleged that she was propositioned for sex on her first day on the job, was repeatedly blocked from advancement and found Uber's human resources department unwilling to take action on sexual harassment claims she and other female employees filed.

Image: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, India, in January 2016.Danish Siddiqui - Reuters

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has shown a desire to be proactive and transparent with the company's response, Levick said. On Sunday, he said what Fowler described was "abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in."

Promising an "urgent" and independent investigation, he announced Attorney General Eric Holder would lead the charge. Arianna Huffington, an Uber board member, will also help investigate and shared her email address on Twitter.

In a post to the Uber company blog, Huffington said she had spent an hour speaking with Kalanick and the new Chief Human Resources officer about women in the workplace and the internal review.

"Travis spoke very honestly about the mistakes he’s made — and about how he wants to take the events of the last 48-hours to build a better Uber. It was great to see employees holding managers accountable. I also view it as my responsibility to hold the leadership team’s feet to the fire on this issue," the post read.

"It should be something they're smart enough to overcome in the long term," George Peterson, founder and CEO of consulting and research firm AutoPacific, Inc., told NBC News.

Not only is Uber's reputation at stake, but the company also stands to lose more customers after the #DeleteUber hashtag started trending again.

In the past day, over 3,000 users have sent out a tweet using the #DeleteUber hashtag, generating nearly 50 million impressions, according to Keyhole, a Twitter tracking service.

The social media campaign first gained traction after critics interpreted Uber as having broken a taxi workers' strike at a New York airport amid protests of Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The movement was said to have spurred 200,000 customers to delete their accounts in protest and was later followed by Kalanick quitting President Trump's business advisory council.

Uber made the most of the holiday weekend to quickly mobilize its crisis response plan and control the narrative, however both Peterson and Levick say what will matter the most is the resolution.

Vital to that will be ensuring Holder has everything he needs to complete an independent and thorough investigation.

"He will have to put something out in the coming weeks or months... in it, there has to be resolutions. There has to be actions the company can take," Levick said, and they have to show them through their corporate social responsibility.

One way, he suggested, is to find a way to recruit more female engineers to work at Uber. The same, he said, should go for other companies in Silicon Valley where there is a gender disparity in engineering.

Only then, will Uber be really able to turn the page, he said."The critical strategy they are going to need to apply is: 'It's a new day here. That was then. This is now."