Culture-induced Optimism

In a stark demonstration that you can always learn something new about yourself, over the weekend, I discovered that I am a raving optimist.

I would never have described myself as a pessimist. I look on the bright side and expect the best, while executing dark side mitigation strategies. That makes me a cautious optimist. Here’s what happened to make me change my mind.

We have to go back to last week when I arrived at dinner early, and my dinner companion got stuck traffic. This rarely bothers me because I have a smartphone with a great data plan and sometimes the diners around me are having crazy interesting conversations at decibel levels where I don’t have to strain to hear them.

Two women sat at a table near mine. One of them works for Uber in Sales, both managing a team and needing to hit her own goals. Apparently, she exceeded her goal by 100% — her goal was X, and she hit 2X. Her bonus payout is supposed to be massive, except that Uber refuses to pay it. Their position is that her bonus was capped; hers is that there’s no language in any of their communications with her that indicates that. In addition to refusing to pay her bonus at the full amount, they have taken her best accounts and distributed them among some of her male colleagues, who did not hit 2X of goal.

The Uber employee’s friend asked a lot of indignant questions about what the salesperson was going to do to be made whole for her extraordinary effort: was she going to get a lawyer or call Eric Holder’s office or Arianna Huffington’s office or a reporter or all of those things? The answer to all those questions was, “I don’t know.” After that, my friend showed up, and we had a great, if potentially less interesting, conversation about life.

I relayed that story to one of my culture expert friends over drinks on Saturday, saying that I would have done all of the things that the salesperson’s friend suggested, and that Uber, to avoid more PR fiasco, would ultimately do what’s right. He disagreed, saying the salesperson’s position was pretty hopeless. I asked why, and he pointed out that Uber has been in the news for the last few months for rampant sexual harassment, the culture-induced suicide of one its engineers, violating the terms of its agreement with Apple, creating a tool to allow it to avoid law enforcement, and being under investigation by the federal government for that tool. And despite all of this, they insist they will not pay the bonus AND shifted work from a woman to men she outperformed. He didn’t see the point in the salesperson doing anything but cutting her losses and finding a job with a better company, because as a corporation, Uber’s pockets are much, much deeper than the salesperson’s, and they could starve her out in litigation.

Some of the work I do with my clients is to create and execute their compliance & ethics communications strategies. The primary goal we want to accomplish with these strategies is for employees to feel comfortable speaking up and knowing where to do it. At a time when I would have expected an Uber employee to feel safest speaking up, my friend highlighted why those were the reasons that an employee would give up instead.

Turning culture around is hard work. It has to start with the sincere and visible commitment of the CEO, and everyone else in the organization has to sincerely and visibly execute that commitment. I’ve never worked at Uber, and so everything I think about them is pure speculation. So here are the things swirling in my mind about Uber. Is the CEO serious about his crisis moment of personal development? Do his senior executive realize this? Do any of the senior executives know what’s happening in their departments? Do they care? Have they asked? Is this the kind of thing Eric Holder’s investigation would uncover? How deep into the organization is the investigation going? Is there a smoking gun e-mail somewhere that instructs employees on what to say to Eric Holder? When did you get this cynical?

Anyway, this is how I discovered that I am not just a cautious optimist but a delusional one. It doesn’t feel fantastic.