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Lessons From Uber: Training for the Flawed High Performer

You’re a top executive and your company is in a “productivity rut.” Growth has stalled, profitability is diminishing and your board is concerned. Everyone from senior management on down has settled into a comfortable rhythm, but you see the need for CHANGE – someone to shake up the status quo and snap the company out of its stupor. You find the perfect “change agent” – someone with a proven track record for turning companies around and facilitating a significant increase in productivity. You hire the change agent, and begin to see your desired results almost immediately. Problem solved, right? Not so fast. As it turns out, those productivity gains have come at a steep cost. Morale is at an all-time low and more than one hotline complaint has been made against your new employee. The complaints allege a violation of your company code of conduct. Worse, they suggest a potential violation of state and/or federal anti-discrimination statutes. Of greatest concern is that the complaints target not only the new employee, but other, long-term management level employees who apparently have received the company message to “increase productivity by any means necessary.” What have you done? More importantly, what should you do now?

Not an Easy Decision

Some would argue that consistently low-performing employees with behavioral or interpersonal issues should be managed out of the company. The decision is not so easy when you have a superstar employee who has become toxic presence in the workplace. Do you fire the employee and risk losing the productivity gains his or her team has achieved? Do you ignore the problem, hoping the issue will “go away”? The truth is, you risk losing productivity either way and may run the risk of even more dire consequences. 93% of workers say they are less productive when they work with people with bad attitudes, and 87% of workers say they have considered changing jobs when they had a co-worker with a bad attitude.1 If your bad actor is a high-level employee who manages a large team, you must consider whether keeping him or her is worth potentially losing other valuable employees. There is a third option – working with the employee to change his/her behavior and attitude in the workplace.

You’re Not Alone

The struggle to effectively manage a highly productive but challenging senior employee is not uncommon. In one high-profile and extreme example, Uber Technologies, Inc. (“Uber”) recently faced this issue with members of senior leadership. In February 2017, former Uber employee Susan Fowler blogged about her experiences as an employee, which allegedly included sexual harassment, gender bias and retaliation. Specifically, Fowler alleged in her blog that shortly after she began working for Uber in November 2015, her manager sent her a series of inappropriate texts. Fowler reported the incident to human resources (HR), who told her there was nothing they could do because her manager was a “high performer.”2 Ms. Fowler persisted with complaints to HR, which were ignored. Ultimately, Ms. Fowler resigned in November 2016 after another manager (also labeled a “high performer”) threatened to fire her for making reports to HR.3

Lessons From Uber

After Ms. Fowler posted her blog in February, more than 215 complaints were raised by Uber employees, alleging sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying and retaliation. Uber responded by retaining the law firm of Perkins Coie to launch an in-depth investigation into the complaints, which resulted in the firing in early June of 20 employees, including some senior executives. Most recently, investor pressure forced the resignation on June 20, 2017, of Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick.4 

Separately, Uber also retained former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran of the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C., to evaluate Uber’s workplace environment and company policies and practices. The months-long probe culminated in a 13-page report containing 10 categories of recommendations for change, including in part: changes to senior leadership, reformulation of cultural values, improvements to HR and the complaint process, changes to employee policies and practices, and training.5

Focus on Training

The Uber probe concluded that training is key to facilitating change to a company’s culture, especially where senior management contributes to the problem. Holder’s report highlights four key components to training when working to facilitate broad change: mandatory leadership training for key senior management, mandatory HR training, mandatory manager training and interview training. 

Clearly, training is needed for senior managers who have engaged in bad behavior. This training should be in-person and could come in the form of group training or 1:1 coaching (or both), and should cover several critical areas: how to exhibit and model inclusive leadership; training to encourage respect and a safe environment for employees to share ideas and be heard; training that covers fundamental skills necessary for effective management as a senior leader, especially in a larger company with several tiers of management; training on the company code of conduct and EEO policies and procedures, especially any changes to such policies; and incorporating the subject matter of the training as a competency against which senior leaders are measured  as part of their performance reviews. The last component is critically important in driving home to senior management the expectation that change be immediate and continuous, and failure to adhere to the expectations could result in negative financial impact or loss of employment.

Human resources training is a key component in facilitating change, especially in situations like Uber, where HR has been complicit in the bad behavior of senior managers or has been warned to steer clear of investigating or reprimanding “high performing” individuals. Human resources should be reminded of its autonomy from its business partners, as well as the importance of promptly and properly handling complaints through a consistent investigation process. Finally, as highlighted in the Uber Report, HR should be trained in properly identifying which complaints or concerns should be escalated to the legal organization (or outside counsel) for review.

Manager training is critical in facilitating change, especially in situations like the introductory hypothetical, where other managers have picked up on the “vibe” of the senior manager, whether it be “productivity at any cost” or “productivity excuses bad behavior.” Training is important for all managers, especially new or first-time managers, who may be lacking in fundamental management skills. 

Finally, a thorough training protocol includes interview training. A first impression is a lasting impression, so all employees who routinely interview candidates for employment should be trained on conducting inclusive interviews and avoiding unconscious bias. Additionally, employees should be trained on asking appropriate questions, proper evaluation of candidates' post-interview and the approved method of providing feedback.

Approaching a “High Performer” Regarding the Need for Training

In situations like Uber, it should be easy to direct a member of senior management to go to training. The conversation would go something like “We are in crisis mode and you need training if you want to keep your job.” But what about situations that are not so clear-cut? Here is some advice on how to approach the “target employee.”

  1. You need concrete evidence and examples of how your high-performing employee’s behavior has negatively impacted co-workers and the company. Approach him or her with documented, specific examples of bad behavior, and make sure to note when that behavior is a violation of your company’s code of conduct or other policies and procedures. If there has been an investigation into the employee’s conduct, use the findings of the investigation as a guide.
  2. Describe in clear terms the behaviors that need to change and your expectations regarding the “new and improved” behavior. 
  3. Make sure the employee knows how dire the situation is, and the consequences of his or her failure to achieve the expected changes. If the employee’s job is on the line, let him or her know that from the get-go.
  4. Let the employee know you want him or her to succeed. The company would not expend the time, effort and money on helping the employee change if he or she didn’t add value to the company. Set up periodic “check-ins” with the employee to review his or her progress and to discuss areas that still need to improve.
  5. Call for back-up. Schedule a 1:1 coaching session with the employee and an outside consultant who can kick off the training needed to get your employee back on track, and can reiterate the points above from an unbiased perspective.

The Bottom Line

Having to deal with a high-performing but difficult employee is not an enviable position. However, if you act promptly and have a concrete plan for re-directing the employee that includes thorough and meaningful training, and your employee recognizes the need for change and is willing to put in the effort needed to achieve that change, there’s a good chance the result will be a win-win for the employee and the company.

1 Justin Reynolds, Managing a High-Performing Employee with a Bad Attitude, TINYpulse, February 3, 2017.
2 Susan J. Fowler, Reflecting on a Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,, February 19, 2017.
3 Id.
4 Bryan Logan and Biz Carson, Travis Kalanick Resigns as Uber CEO,, June 21, 2017.
5 Anita Balakrishnan, Here’s the Full 13-page Report of Recommendations for Uber, CNBC, June 13, 2017.