A highlight of Jeff Jones’ four years as chief marketing officer at Target had to have been an inspirational blog post he put on his personal LinkedIn page under the headline, “The Truth Hurts.”
It came in May 2014, just days after Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel had been tossed out and an anonymous insider had taken to a popular website to blast the company’s “Targetized” workplace of conformist mediocrity. And it was only months after Target disclosed a shocking loss of customers’ credit and debit card data.
A first, uncomfortable step to any recovery, Jones wrote, is honestly facing up to problems. “Yes, the truth hurts,” he wrote. “But it will also set you free.”
Jones is now the president of ride-sharing for the San Francisco company Uber Technologies. His LinkedIn page has been quiet, so his views on the state of the truth at Uber can only be guessed. But lately the truths at Uber must be just killing him.
A note sent through Uber’s PR team did not get a response. But it would be hard to deny that in its worst month after the data breach, Target didn’t have the depth of problems that Uber has.
Since Jones joined the company last fall, Uber hasn’t exactly come crashing down. But as a wildly unprofitable company valued at nearly $70 billion, Uber really only has only one way to go. There may be a temptation to see its current troubles as just PR problems, but that’s only if you don’t quite understand what a PR problem really is.
It’s not when people say bad things about you. It’s when real problems of your own making become widely known.
And the bad news has been piling up. For starters, over the weekend it was reported in the New York Times that Uber developed software to evade regulators. In a way, this news may have come as a relief for Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, because it pushed his own bad behavior, when he was caught on video angrily belittling a driver’s concerns about declining prices, out of the headlines.
The 40-year-old Kalanick did, however, write a blog post last week apologizing for that and promising to “grow up.”
He didn’t volunteer anything in that post about a lawsuit just filed by the self-driving car unit of the company we once knew as Google, now under the umbrella of Alphabet. Lawsuits alleging theft of technology aren’t exactly rare in Silicon Valley, but they have been for Alphabet, which is an investor in Uber. Its detailed suit described how 14,000 files allegedly were downloaded by Google’s self-driving car expert before he left in 2016 to found a company that Uber soon acquired.
Then there were revelations in the last month about Uber’s culture, ignited when a former Uber engineer published a first-person story of her year at Uber. She wrote she had given up in frustration because of sexual harassment and discrimination that seemed not only tolerated but maybe even encouraged. The repercussions included the abrupt firing of one Uber engineering executive.
One incident stands out in her matter-of-fact account, a corporate decision to skip buying leather jackets for women on her engineering team. It seems that by then so many women already had quit that the company couldn’t get a volume discount on women’s sizes. So only the guys got jackets.
It’s possible to imagine middle-school boys making that kind of call, not managers at a company reportedly worth nearly $70 billion. But maybe no one should be surprised, given what the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and other publications have said about how Uber is led.
Uber got its start in 2009 but only much later did Kalanick unveil more than a dozen core values, which were promptly leaked. A full list on Uber letterhead wasn’t easy to find, but it reportedly included going toe-to-toe with colleagues, always be hustling, “super pumpedness” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and encouraging “toe- stepping.”
Often described by the company itself as a meritocracy, Uber thinks permitting toe-stepping lets good ideas win regardless of the status of who came up with them. In reality, though, a workplace that bills itself as a meritocracy often ends up with the ruthless and unprincipled in charge. Those eager to step on toes soon find their own toes cut off.
The engineer who wrote about leather jackets sure didn’t think much of Uber’s meritocracy. She described “a Game of Thrones political war raging” in the open among the leaders of her department, as managers openly gloated about undermining their bosses, withholding information from each other and currying favor with their boss’s boss.
Jeff Jones’ name doesn’t appear to show up in any of these accounts of Uber’s Hobbesian work culture. Yet he was the star of another fiasco, a question-and-answer session for drivers.
Uber drivers have been in a surly mood lately, unhappy about things such as price cuts and driving for an Uber group service. More than 500 questions and comments were logged. Jones managed to get to just 12 of them, which became yet another reason for bitter complaint. “Really, it did not go well,” a writer for the automotive website Jalopnik dryly observed.
The biggest beef the drivers have with Jones, of course, is Uber’s plan to get rid of them. Uber has been trying out its self-driving Fords and Volvos on city streets. Its ambition to lead the driverless car revolution could not be any clearer to these humans who are trying to make a living.
Jones has only been with Uber for half a year. If he has time to draft another “Truth Hurts” blog post, though, he should have accumulated more than enough material by now.