During periods of rapid growth, current and former employees said, on-call employees could be paged dozens or even hundreds of times a night. Even employees with realistic expectations of the hard work that fast-growing startups often demand felt burdened by an on-call system that they say often amounted to unpaid extra shifts.
As it revolutionized the transportation sector, Uber also created its own corporate culture. That culture, according to interviews with more than two dozen sources, was one that valued and rewarded hard-charging, hard-working, and even hard-partying employees — literally ranking them above others who weren’t seen as aggressive enough — and a management style that many say fostered anxiety and fear. Uber is now in the midst of trying to change that culture, following an investigation spurred by allegations of sexual harassment and led by former attorney general Eric Holder. But at a company with more than 15,000 people that has historically based both promotions and terminations on those most willing to go all in on its values, current and former employees paint a picture of deeply embedded problems.
These employees — all of whom shared their experiences with BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity, mostly for fear of repercussion — described impossible workloads, around-the-clock emergencies, fear of management, a total erosion of work-life balance, and a pattern of public humiliation at the hands of higher-ups as Uber pushed to become the juggernaut it is today. Many attributed panic attacks, substance abuse, depression, and hospitalizations to the stress of the job. All — even those who ultimately enjoyed their time there — recall a uniquely high-pressure environment in which employees were regularly pushed to a breaking point, but afraid to quit and leave large amounts of equity on the table.
“It’s a money cult. People are putting up with massive amounts of abuse, mental abuse, constant threats to fire you so you’re losing your equity,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “The equity, people see that as their future, their retirement, the reason they moved to America, or why they moved halfway across the country, or across the country.”
Hornsey insists Uber is committed to correcting course on employee wellness. “It is very much my belief that we will leapfrog much of what you find in corporate America,” she told BuzzFeed News. But for some Uber employees, the mea culpas, work-life balance surveys, and vows to do better come too little, too late.
In Uber’s vision, work time is elastic, workers are expendable, and the workday itself has no clear start or end. The individual is uniquely responsible for their own financial success, and the company achieves maximum output without having to compensate people for their downtime.
Uber revolutionized work by turning people into flexible, mobile, iPhone-wielding, car-driving widgets. It is a machine for squeezing value out of people — and that applies as much to its many thousands of drivers as to the 14,000 corporate employees working in offices around the globe.
Working seven days a week, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m., was considered normal, said one employee. Another recalled her manager telling her that spending 70 to 80 hours a week in the office was simply “how Uber works.” Someone else recalled working 80 to 100 hours a week.
“You were always on the clock,” said one former program manager. He said he never took a vacation day, though he did take a personal day once because of stress. When he came in the next day, his manager pulled him into a conference room and told him that “taking that personal day was really not a great idea,” he told BuzzFeed News.
“Travis used to always talk about redlining,” said one former employee, referring to the practice of driving a car at maximum speed. “Once it starts to get to the top of the meter, it gets in the red zone, which means your engine is about to explode. If you weren’t redlining, you weren’t working hard enough.”
Ironically, Uber board member and media mogul Arianna Huffington — a Kalanick ally who served as one of the company’s public faces as it grappled with the harassment investigation — has built her brand in recent years around the importance of sleep. She is the CEO of a wellness company called Thrive Global, and copies of her book, The Sleep Revolution, were often available in piles on tables in Uber offices. Huffington even went so far as to attribute the company’s recent scandal to a “workplace culture fueled by burnout.”
Anyone who’s spent time in a San Francisco coworking space or coffee shop understands that long hours are as baked into Silicon Valley’s corporate culture as free snacks. But Uber differs from tech’s other behemoths in that — unlike Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies of its size — it is still privately held. This impacts employees in a few ways: Despite its gargantuan valuation, it is not profitable, which means that it is focused on reaching scale at almost any cost.
“It was a culture of finger-pointing,” said a former program manager.
A former senior employee described being “fearful” of “aggressive” higher-ups: “You felt like you were walking on eggshells.”
The person also said that kind of ever-present fear of management was even more enervating than the long hours. “It’s not about burnout, it’s more about this incredibly pervasive toxic atmosphere of not knowing what’s going to get you in trouble,” the person said.
One employee, an engineer, recently started seeing a therapist. “I probably should have been talking to somebody who would have pointed out more of the issues,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that giving that much of yourself to any one thing is not healthy.
“There was a complete lack of HR,” said one former operations employee. One former senior employee described it as one of the “bits of the puzzle” Kalanick “had to outsource.” As a result, individual managers had outsized control over who got to keep their jobs, a former employee said.
In particular, sources described the performance review process as, variously, stressful, political, and a popularity contest in which connections to Kalanick, or other people in positions of power at Uber, could make or break your future at the company.
One former operations employee based in the New York office remembered a colleague who was fired not long after he started at Uber. Chief among the reasons he was given for that person’s termination was that they were uninterested in attending a company retreat in upstate New York; the manager had determined that the individual was a bad fit.
By the time he left a year and a half later, he questioned whether the atmosphere of constant anxiety wasn’t intentional on the part of Uber management. “I wondered if there was a template managers used to make people feel like shit to get people to work harder,” he said. “It was like an abusive relationship. Your boyfriend keeps making you feel bad, and then they come back and say, ‘I love you, you’re so beautiful’. They’d come back and be like, ‘You’re a part of this amazing team, you’re part of the fastest growing company in history.’ But on an individual level, it seemed like the systems were designed to make you feel like you were never good enough.”