Uber HR boss out after charges she ignored complaints about racist behavior

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SAN FRANCISCO — The staff shake-up continues at Uber, nearly a year after CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took over with a vow to remake the ride-hailing company’s toxic culture.

Late Tuesday, Liane Hornsey, Uber’s head of human resources, abruptly resigned in the wake of an internal investigation into how she handled employee complaints about racism, according a Reuters report citing anonymous members of the group that brought the complaints.

Hornsey leaves just one month after the equally abrupt departure of Uber’s chief brand officer, Bozoma Saint John, who now leads marketing at Los Angeles talent agency Endeavor. Saint John, who previously had worked at Apple, was at Uber for one year. Saint John became the highest ranking African American at Uber when she was hired last year with the mission of remaking Uber’s bruised brand image. 

According to Reuters, an anonymous group of Uber employees of color charged that Hornsey and Uber’s human resources department not only ignored complaints about racist behavior at the company but also that Hornsey used discriminatory language and her derogatory comments about Saint John as well as the company’s global head of diversity and inclusion, Bernard Coleman, who is also African-American. 

One anonymous employee threatened to go public with its complaints about Hornsey if Uber did not investigate. Uber’s new chief legal officer, Tony West, retained Los Angeles-based law firm Gibson Dunn to look into the allegations. The firm, according to Reuters, concluded that some of the charges were founded. 

Uber spokesperson MoMo Zhou did not offer details about the specifics of the investigation, but said the company was “confident (it) was conducted in an unbiased, thorough and credible manner, and that the conclusions of the investigation were addressed appropriately.”

Zhou added that Hornsey would stay on temporarily in order to help transition one of her deputies, HR vice president Pranesh Anthapur, into her role. The company will then conduct a search for a new head of HR. 

Internal emails reviewed by USA TODAY include one from Hornsey to the staff acknowledging that the departure “comes a little out of the blue,” while Khosrowshahi reported her move to Uber employees by praising her as “incredibly talented, creative, and hard-working.”

Hornsey, who joined Uber 18 months ago from Google, was at the HR helm during a series of sexism scandals that included scathing memo in February 2017 by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler. These and other revelations led to the departure last summer of co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.

In an interview with USA TODAY in May 2017, Hornsey said Uber’s main issues were not rooted in a company culture that condoned sexist behavior, which she said existed at many major companies, but rather that employees felt they weren’t being appreciated for their hard work. 

“They need more love and respect from the company,” Hornsey said. “That’s my sense of what’s wrong.”

Since joining Uber from Expedia last August, Khosrowshahi has had to tackle fallout from a decade of aggressive corporate tactics that contributed to a meteoric rise from San Francisco black car app to a global transportation phenomenon with a valuation of $45 billion.

Over the years, Uber executives approved the creation of software aimed at deceiving city regulators, surreptitiously obtained the medical records of an Indian woman who was raped by her Uber driver, and maintained a fierce culture that Kalanick dubbed “always be hustlin’.”

In contrast, Khosrowshahi recently was featured in a series of prime time television ads in which he didn’t refer to specific past scandals but instead vows that the company’s revamped culture will follow a simple guideline of trying to “do the right thing.”

Follow USA TODAY reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.

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