As if Uber wasn’t already in enough hot water over recent claims by an employee about sexism within the organization, a new report has shed light on another troubling instance of inappropriate behavior that the company wished people wouldn’t hear about.
According to The Information, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and his then-girlfriend, violinist Gabi Holzwarth, visited an escort-karaoke bar with five other employees in the South Korean capital of Seoul in 2014.
Holzwarth said that a number of women wearing numbered ID tags sat in a circle before being picked by the male Uber employees to join them. A female marketing manager for the company who was also in the group told Holzwarth that she’d complained to HR, as well as to Kalanick about the episode that “made her feel horrible as a girl (seeing those girls with number tags and being called out is really degrading).”
The story is emerging now because Holzwarth received a call three weeks ago from Uber’s senior VP of business Emil Michael, who was also on the company outing that night. According to Holzwarth, he expressed his fears about the incident being discovered by the media and asked her to simply say the group visited a karaoke bar.
It isn’t clear how Uber handled the issue internally. Speaking about his correspondence with Holzwarth, Michael – who previously suggested hiring researchers to dig up dirt on journalists so as to help the company fight negative press – told The Information, “Her recollection of this conversation was different from mine and I am very sorry if the purpose of my call was misunderstood.”
Holzwarth also noted that around the time Holzwarth messaged the female Uber employee more than a year after the incident, Kalanick spoke to the marketing manager on the phone and told Holzwarth that he suspected his employee “must have a lawyer and wants something.”
Just over a month ago, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post alleging displays of sexism within the company. Following that, the company launched an internal investigation into the issues highlighted by Fowler; it’s being led by former US Attorney General Eric Holder and legal counsel Tammy Albarran, as well as board member Arianna Huffington.
The company also saw its president Jeff Jones resign last week after just six months in his new role, citing differences between his and Uber’s approach to leadership. Kalanick & Co. are also on the hunt for a new COO.
Given the current scenario, Uber will need to work long hard to fix what Holzwarth has described as ‘systemic workplace problems and questionable management practices’ within its organization.
We’ve contacted Uber for further comment and will update this post if there’s a response.