At Uber, New Questions Arise About Executive Behavior

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Vipin Kumar | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

A number of Uber employees have allegedly filed complaints against Uber’s chief operating officer, Barney Harford, for insensitive comments regarding women and minorities.

On a conference call this spring with colleagues, Mr. Harford, the company’s chief operating officer, critiqued a new ad that showed a mixed-race couple, said five people familiar with the conversation. He debated aloud how common the pairing was among the audiences that would see it. He also said he found parts of the ad’s early cut confusing, mixing up two black women in the video because they had similar hairstyles, said the people, who declined to be identified because they have signed nondisclosure agreements.

Though Mr. Harford later told colleagues that he regretted his phrasing, his comments struck many on the call as insensitive about race. They said it was part of a pattern by Mr. Harford in which he talked about women or minorities.

They said Uber employees had since filed several informal and formal complaints to the human resources department, the head of diversity and other top executives about Mr. Harford’s behavior. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, was also notified and has addressed the matter directly with Mr. Harford, two Uber employees said.

The conduct is surfacing as Uber has been trying to turn itself around after a tumultuous 2017. The company was rocked last year by accusations of gender discrimination and harassment in its workplace, as well as other issues, ultimately leading to the ouster of the chief executive at the time, Travis Kalanick. After Mr. Khosrowshahi replaced him last fall, Uber pledged to follow a philosophy of being kinder and gentler and to reform itself.

Mr. Harford’s behavior shows how new workplace problems continue to crop up at Uber amid scrutiny of whether its corporate culture is changing. While Mr. Khosrowshahi has made many adjustments to the company in recent months and employees have said Uber has stabilized, internal issues — particularly around diversity — persist.

Mr. Harford, 46, who has been meeting more frequently with Uber’s chief diversity officer, has committed to Mr. Khosrowshahi that he will improve his “blind spots” and undergo coaching, Uber executives said.



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