Uber, once the company that could do no wrong, at least in the eyes of the press, now seems to be careening from one PR disaster to another. And in a telling bit of irony, the latest scandal is the result of the president, Jeff Jones, who was brought in a mere six months ago from Target, quitting suddenly. And what was Jones’ job? To clean up Uber’s image!
The immediate trigger for the departure appeared to be Uber’s recently-announced search for a #2, in which Jones was not under consideration for the post and was thus effectively being demoted. However, the real dirt came out in industry site Recode.
Uber issued a bog standard polite official goodbye, but Kalenick sent out a more tart message internally:
And, in a note to staff, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said: “After we announced our intention to hire a COO, Jeff came to the tough decision that he doesn’t see his future at Uber. It is unfortunate that this was announced through the press but I thought it was important to send all of you an email before providing comment publicly.[“]
Indeed, the fact that Jones went out first with the news suggests that there was a lot of tension and/or mistrust before he resigned. Recode next posted Jones’ statement, which, to put it mildly, isn’t the sort of thing you see normally issued by a departing exec who has worked in public companies. And since Jones’ entire job involves dealing with the press, he knew exactly what he was doing. Again from Recode:
Jones also confirmed the departure with a blistering assessment of the company. “It is now clear, however, that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business,” he said in a statement to Recode.
Translation: “I couldn’t find a way to put enough lipstick on this pig.”
At a minimum, this is going to make the COO search more complicated. It will be fair game for candidates to press Kalenick hard on whether he is committed to change. Perhaps a candidate from a Fortune 500 company will think twice about how badly he wants this job. Of course, most problems in corporate America can be solved with money, so the pay pot for the role might be sweetened at the margin. The Financial Times reports that Uber was losing staff before the Jones blow-up:
Recruiters and rival firms have reported an uptick in job applications from Uber employees in recent weeks, with some saying that workers are losing faith in the company’s leadership team.
The Journal reminded readers of executive departures:
Mr. Jones is among a string of key executive departures in recent weeks, including Ed Baker, vice president of product and growth, and Raffi Krikorian, who helped oversee Uber’s self-driving car efforts. Amit Singhal, a top software engineer at Uber, was fired after a month, for failing to disclose allegations of sexual harassment at his previous employer, Alphabet Inc.’s Google, a person familiar with the matter said.
The Journal also described a recent misfire by Jones:
In an ill-fated attempt to respond to driver concerns in February, he held a question-and-answer session on Facebook but addressed only about a dozen of hundreds of questions and signed off after about 30 minutes, despite promising a full hour.
Oddly, Bloomberg used the Jones departure as the reason for reciting the local transportation company’s litany of transgressions, yet downplayed the content of Jones’ statement to Recode:
The scandals range from allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic work culture to the combative behavior of Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick. After Bloomberg published a video on Feb. 28 showing Kalanick berating an Uber driver, he said he would seek “leadership help” and was planning to hire a chief operating officer. The plan was viewed internally as an effective demotion for Jones, who was hired last year as president of ride-sharing and second in command, a person familiar with the matter said…
Jones decided to leave because the long string of controversies are not what he signed on for when he left his post as chief marketing officer at Target Corp., according to Recode, which reported his departure earlier Sunday. Jones’s purview at the closely held company included Uber’s brand, which took a beating during his short tenure, largely for reasons beyond his control.
Note Bloomberg’s list does not include Greyball, an app which gave certain customers different views than regular rides, with the intent of stymieing police, and a suit by Alphabet alleging that Uber stole designs from Alphabet’s self-driving car business.
Nevertheless, Jones wasn’t merely talking about controversies. The very reason for Jones’ hiring was that Uber was getting more (deserved) bad press. Jones’ choice to single out “beliefs and approach to leadership” says the rot at Uber is coming from the head.
An additional issue is if any of the current Uber contretemps escalate into lawsuits, a plaintiff could call on Jones in an effort to bolster an argument that any alleged bad conduct is the result of institutionalized behavior, and not accidents or isolated incidents. While Jones no doubt signed a very tough non-disclosure agreement, they can be set aside in judicial proceedings.