What Uber’s culture teaches us about employee feedback

This post first appeared in DNA India on March 2nd, 2017.

There are two distinct schools of thought regarding employee-feedback systems within organiation. The first one (and probably the more traditional)one, favours anonymity in employee feedback. The reasoning is that employees tend to be fearful of repurcussions from their managers and leaders, and ensuring anonymity would enable them to fearlessly speak their mind. The second, and a more recent, school of thought envisages a workplace that is open, where, to quote Tagore, “the mind is without fear and the head is held high”, and where employees are encouraged and enabled in giving free and frank opinions. They think of this as the workplace of the future where the intrigues and insecurities of the past will disappear, under the coruscating gaze of enlightenment!

I was thinking about these divergent schools of thoughts on reading about the recent happenings at Uber. As you may have read, two women ex-employees in the US have come out and narrated tales of their harrowing experiences within the organisation. This includes claims of misogynistic and sexist managers to callous and quite frankly, incompetent and compromised HR leaders. Their experiences are mind boggling in this day and age and especially in a much talked about “unicorn” in the heart of the start-up capital of the world – Silicon Valley.

What hit me the most was the fact that here we were in one of the freest societies in the world, in an area that is supposedly, a bastion of liberal thought and the women had to undergo an experience that one would associate with other, more traditional parts of the world. Moreover, while initially, the women tried to reach out to the HR leaders and other managers, it was very apparent that the fear of repurcussions, of losing their jobs, forced them to endure behaviour, which they would otherwise not have done in other areas of their life.

Given the toxic culture existing in even a new age company like Uber, I believe it is utopian to think about open workplaces with non-anonymous feedback becoming the norm. Human behaviour is the same worldwide. We all suffer from the same insecurities. This is enhanced in the corporate world where any missteps can mean slithering down the slippery corporate ladder. It is this fear that is often exploited by unscrupulous managers and leaders. They know that they can count on this fear to manipulate employees, especially if top leadership is known to take a lenient view of any ethical or moral transgressions. This often happens in companies where the ends justify the means.

It is for precisely this reason that anonymous feedback works since employees feel emboldened to speak out without fear of reprisals by vindictive managers. While this view might be more traditional, it is also, in my view, the more practical one. Else, we could all be living in La-La Land!