How Uber's Hard-Charging Corporate Culture Left Employees Drained
After a highly publicized corporate meltdown this spring, Uber is working to repair a culture that employees and observers say is aggressive, cutthroat, and demanding. But years of putting out fires 24/7, partying hard and working harder, and contending with volatile managers has taken a toll on the mental health of the white-collar workers who were instrumental to building the Uber empire.
SAN FRANCISCO — At Uber, the workday starts early and ends late. Engineers working on certain teams are accustomed to predawn pings from work: Something might be broken, or about to break, and if you don’t get up and fix it, there’s hell to pay — including the possibility of an eviscerating email from a top executive, sometimes sent to the whole company.
“I felt like I was on call all the time,” said one employee. “I got texts on the weekends. Emails at 11 at night. And if you didn’t respond within 30 minutes, there’d be a chain of like 20 people.”
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. “There was a three- to four-month period where I was getting woken up every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3 or 4 in the morning to fix something,” said an engineer who started at Uber in 2014 of his earlier years there. “Months of that, on top of working 10-plus hours a day.”
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.
In May 2015, an on-call engineer failed to respond to alerts about an issue with a master database. As a result, Uber suffered a service outage that affected operations teams worldwide: Drivers signing up to drive couldn’t be onboarded to Uber’s platform, and employees couldn’t respond to rider requests for help.
At the time, Uber had recently reached a valuation of $50 billion. Stakes were high, and CTO Thuan Pham used a companywide email to let staff know the cost of a mistake like that.
"If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?"
“The on-call engineer received/acknowledged three alerts about master database being low on disk space, but ignored it. This is not acceptable,” Pham wrote in the email, sent to more than 3,500 employees and obtained by BuzzFeed News. “We are looking to determine whether this is negligence or whether a different on-call engineer could have reasonably missed the alerts amidst a flood of other alerts from the systems at that time.”
Even more than two years later, some remembered the email as an example of what one former employee called a “culture of fear” at the company. Pham didn’t name the employee in the email, but multiple engineers familiar with the incident told BuzzFeed News the person's identity was widely known and broadly available via an on-call schedule that is internally public.
“We try to have a blameless postmortem,” said one engineer. “That email from Thuan [...] was great example of not following that.” Besides, the employee added, “if you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?”
In a follow-up email two days later, Pham addressed criticism of his decision to email the staff about the engineer’s mistake. "It came to my attention that some people in the org think that my note to the company is overly critical and has the feel of throwing people under the bus,” he wrote.
“I don't want to create a culture [where] people are fearful of making mistakes or causing outages because they want to move fast and take smart risks, but I also don't want a culture where we do substandard work and cause outages that are easily avoidable,” Pham wrote.
He continued: “Feeling defensive, or feeling like a victim, is NOT the way to get ourselves better.”
For the past several months, Uber has been in the midst of a very public meltdown. In February, Susan Fowler, a former engineer, came forward with allegations of sexism and sexual harassment at the company. As a result, Uber launched two internal investigations: one into her claims, and another into the company’s culture at large, conducted by former US attorney general Eric Holder. In the end, the company fired 20 people for offenses ranging from sexual harassment to bullying and retaliation. Executives including New York general manager Josh Mohrer, senior vice president Emil Michael, and Eric Alexander, Uber’s president of business in Asia, left. (Through his personal spokesperson, Michael declined to comment. A spokesperson for Alexander did not return a request for comment. Uber has not named the individuals who were fired in the course of the investigation.) Uber’s board voted to adopt all 47 of the suggestions put forth in the Holder report; these included changing Uber’s 14 cultural values from ideas such as “toe-stepping” and “principled confrontation” to more positive guiding principles, and expressly prohibiting romantic relationships between managers and reports.
Meanwhile, Uber is also fighting an unrelated, blockbuster lawsuit from Alphabet’s self-driving unit Waymo, which alleges that the ride-hail giant stole its technology. And perhaps most significantly, Travis Kalanick, whose mother died suddenly in May, resigned as CEO on June 20, facing pressure from investors. (He will remain on the board, and sits on the committee that will pick his successor.) While the board searches for new executive leadership, the company is being run by a 14-person group.
But before its months-long implosion, Uber was one of the great success stories of the modern tech boom, a young company that swiftly devastated the taxi industry and grew to a staggering $69 billion valuation in the process. Even today, it is the most valuable tech startup in the world. As interviews with more than two dozen former and current Uber employees show, the company reached such great heights by asking forgiveness, never permission, and pushing to the limits everything that it could: laws, municipalities, markets — and workers.
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.
"Many employees are very tired from working very, very hard as the company grew."
“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.”
In an interview, Liane Hornsey, who joined Uber as chief human resource officer in January, openly acknowledged employee burnout. “Many employees are very tired from working very, very hard as the company grew,” she said. “Resources were tight and the growth was such that we could never hire sufficiently, quickly enough, in order to keep up with the growth.”
Asked if Uber executives were aware that employees have experienced panic attacks, visited the hospital, and attempted self-harm while working at the company, Uber declined to comment.
To be sure, a lot has changed at Uber in recent weeks. Hornsey said she has held more than 200 listening sessions with employees across the organization as a means of hearing their concerns. Uber now serves free dinner at 7 p.m. rather than 8:15, so that employees can take advantage of the perk without working well into the evening. While it was once a stated company value to work harder, longer, and smarter, Hornsey and her team “eradicated the word ‘longer,’” she said. “I thought that was both symbolic and rather important.” Hornsey told BuzzFeed News the company is planning to soon begin paying engineers extra for working on-call shifts, and will offer employees reimbursements up to a specific threshold for not just gym memberships, but also massages and relaxation therapy.
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.
“You can’t change the culture. It’s set,” said a former senior employee. “Travis can’t hire Eric Holder or Arianna Huffington and change the culture of a 10,000-person company. It’s unrealistic. People pay lip service to change knowing it’s not coming.”
Even its most outspoken critics agree that Uber has dramatically and irrevocably changed the way the world gets around. But the company’s great breakthrough isn’t the concept of cars on demand, or even the technology that enables it. It’s an accelerated restructuring of the American labor force and dramatic redefinition of the future of work. 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.
For drivers, this means accepting ride after ride with cash bonuses, hourly incentives, and a five-star rating system in which drivers are expected to maintain at least a 4.7-star rating. Without those drivers, their cars, and the millions of miles they’ve driven, Uber wouldn’t exist. But all that work has cost Uber very little — drivers receive no benefits, pay their own income taxes, and earn, based on Uber’s estimation, wages that are roughly equivalent to an employee at McDonald's. 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.
Like many companies of its kind, Uber attracts the best and the brightest by pitching itself as a pure meritocracy, a place where best thinkers and hardest workers are richly rewarded. Meritocracy — the tech-industry-beloved organizational ethos that assumes everyone, regardless of gender, race, or economic background, has an equal chance of success — was one of Uber’s now-abandoned 14 core values. As one former employee said, explaining why he joined the company, it seemed like a “libertarian playground where the best would rise to the top.” But, he said, “I quickly realized that environment also means work becomes a blood sport.”
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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. (Uber disputed that it is common for employees to work seven days a week, and emphasized that it is in the midst of changing expectations surrounding work hours.)
Those who apply with the best proposals are rewarded by a chance to join the company’s annual “workcation,” typically between Christmas and New Year’s, during which employees brainstorm product ideas. Workcation is seen as a perk — even though employees pay their own airfare and commit to working over the holiday, Uber offers daily stipends for meals and transportation. (One former employee described it as the opportunity to “go to an island paradise and lock yourself in a room to code for 12 hours a day.”)
“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. Someone else remembered being asked to work through a high fever for two days at the implicit request of a teammate, despite sending an email saying they needed to take the day off.
“I never even thought of spending the weekend not working,” said one employee. Another said it “was a problem” with management that he left work at 6:30 or 7 to be with his family.
“It’s overwhelming to be told, 'We’re the top startup, we’re killing it, we’re expanding to China,' and all this other stuff, and to be asked to work weekends and pour hours in,” said a former employee. “I feel so broken and dead.”
“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.”
Indeed, many employees attribute the company’s hard-charging culture to its recently ousted CEO. “The mentality is to find your line and keep pushing it,” one employee said. “You can’t say in every instance ‘Travis did it!’ But the overall culture... I feel like he shaped it that way.”
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.”
“For me, it’s kind of like a joke,” said one former employee of Huffington's contributions on the topic of sleep.
“I don’t understand how you can have a course on work-life balance with Travis up there talking about how he never stops working,” a current employee said.
Some Uber employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News felt that given how fast the company was growing during certain periods, the level of stress and the pressure to be constantly working made sense, even felt necessary. But one former operations employee who worked in New York speculated that an atmosphere of constant fire drills was simply Uber’s business model.
“In college I took several business classes, and one was about Southeast Asian business. The professor said ... there's this spectrum of stress level. You want workers to be as stressed as possible, but not over the line where they're going to do something like light themselves on fire outside the factory,” he said. “It felt a little bit like that was what they were trying to do at Uber.”
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. And perhaps most significantly, like many private startups, Uber weights compensation toward equity and away from salary.
While engineers in the Bay Area are, by any standard, well-paid, Uber acknowledges that it pays less than some of its top competitors for talent. For example, a software engineer at Uber earns an average salary of about $115,000 annually, according to data from Glassdoor — about $10,000 less than those at Facebook. The Information reported that Uber uses an algorithm to estimate the lowest possible compensation employees will take in order to keep labor costs down. Asked about the algorithm, Uber declined to comment.
Hornsey told BuzzFeed News she plans to announce changes to Uber’s compensation policies to employees this week, but declined to say what those changes would be. Concerns about compensation ranked among employees’ top nine issues during her listening sessions, she said.
But some employees say they feel trapped at Uber by financial incentive, whether they’re waiting four years for their shares to vest or trying to save enough money to actually buy the options they’ve already been offered.
“You’re just so invested that you can’t walk away from it … the equity is in the millions for some people,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “You’re young enough to be able to invest the crazy amounts of time and energy. It’s really valuable, but you really are trading in a piece of yourself for it.”
Effective in June, Uber changed its policy for employees who have been there for at least three years, extending the time window for making that purchase from 30 days to seven years after a person’s last day at the company.
Still, the reality is, the longer you stay, the more you stand to make if and when Uber goes public. The company’s gigantic valuation and the associated potential windfall is a highly effective incentive to keep people from leaving.
“People think they have one shot,” said one former employee. “It kind of seems like this is the one big shot in life to be financially secure.”
The promise of cashing in big kept many employees at Uber despite what some described as humiliating treatment at the hands of managers.
“We’d be cursed at,” one former program manager who left over a year ago remembered. “People would get yelled at on the floor in front of everybody.”
In fact, Pham’s email about the on-call engineer wasn’t the only time sources say employees were publicly belittled by higher-ups. In March 2016, Uber began encouraging its corporate employees to drive for the platform as a means of better understanding the organization. These employees were expected to drive in their spare time, and their earnings were donated to charity.
During an all-hands meeting in the summer of 2016, one such employee, an engineer, was brought onstage to discuss his experience with Kalanick.
But the tone of the presentation quickly shifted, four former and current Uber employees recalled, when Kalanick learned that the engineer was struggling to maintain a driver rating above 4.7, the threshold below which drivers are blocked from using the platform.
According to people who were present at the meeting, Kalanick teased the engineer about his rating, asking why it wasn’t higher. Echoing professional Uber drivers, the engineer tried to explain that problems with the app — for example, a failure with the map function — frustrate passengers, who take it out on drivers by giving them lower ratings. Uber said that Kalanick was merely asking the employee to share what he’d learned and why his rating was relatively low. But employees felt differently.
“TK grilled him hard in front of everyone,” one employee, who recently left the company, recalled, referring to Kalanick by a widely used internal nickname. “It was hella uncomfortable.”
A second employee interpreted the exchange differently. “I took it as just teasing,” the employee, an engineer, said. “But some coworkers were more offended.”
"I talked to coworkers,” said a third person, “and we were all just like, that was kind of mean.”
Though Uber confirmed that video of the incident exists, it declined to share it with BuzzFeed News. And employees told BuzzFeed News that aggressiveness wasn’t just tolerated but valorized at Uber.
“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. “What's exhausting is being around the Uberness of it all.”
Until the Holder report’s recommendations were adopted in June, the company was governed by 14 company values, including “stepping on toes,” “always be hustlin’,” and “principled confrontation.” The independent review of Uber’s workplace found that these have “been used to justify poor behavior.”
"Asshole culture is promoted at Uber. You’ve got to be a certain assholeish type of personality, otherwise you’re considered weak."
“Asshole culture is promoted at Uber,” said a recently departed employee. “You’ve got to be a certain assholeish type of personality, otherwise you’re considered weak.” She contended that this was particularly difficult for the company’s female employees: “You pretty much have to behave like a man to succeed,” she said. “Either you are an asshole, or you are considered not valuable.”
This culture extended beyond Uber’s San Francisco headquarters. In New York, for example, Josh Mohrer was a general manager made in Kalanick’s image, according to employees.
“Josh did what he wanted, and [Kalanick] gave him latitude to do what he wanted because he was so good. He was wicked smart, but he was brutal,” said a former senior operations employee. “He came in, cleaned house, and turned New York into a dominant market. He played hardball. He did the kinds of things [Kalanick] expected to get results.”
Mohrer became well-known during his time at Uber for things like advocating against tipping drivers and admitting that he used Uber’s “God View” to track a journalist’s movements. His approach may have appealed to Kalanick’s sensibilities, but some of the people who worked under him in New York, three of whom shared their experiences with BuzzFeed News, felt he was overly aggressive.
“He would yell at and berate employees in front of their direct reports, and the tone he used was always half joking,” said one former employee who worked for Uber on the East Coast. “He was an impulse bully who fought anyone if he didn’t get his way and routinely made his direct reports cry in the office from his bullying.”
Mohrer left Uber in May. Sources told BuzzFeed News that Mohrer was a subject of an internal investigation inside the company, but Uber declined to comment on Mohrer’s behavior and the circumstances of his departure. He has since joined Tusk Ventures, a strategy firm he worked closely with at Uber. Mohrer declined to comment on this story.
While more than a dozen Uber executives have left the company for varying reasons this year, including its CEO, many leaders who were bred in the ride-hail giant’s aggressive culture remain. But Hornsey said executives at Uber “know that we need to put our people first and know that this is an existential issue for us.”
“Post Susan Fowler’s blog, many executives in this company have been somewhat personally shaken, somewhat shocked. And that shake and that shock gives you a remit for change,” she said. “It gives you a moment when people are more open to change than they might have been.”
The personal consequences of working in an environment like the one at Uber — high-pressure, combative, all-consuming — can vary greatly based on personality and experience. Some people told BuzzFeed News they found it exhilarating. Others described it as a psychically draining but occasionally rewarding experience. For a few, some of whom shared their stories with BuzzFeed News, the mental health situation teetered on dangerous.
Multiple former employees said they’d personally witnessed people having panic attacks in the office. A former employee who spent two years at Uber remembered watching a stressed-out teammate unravel at a meeting. “This guy broke down in tears, saying that he’s not happy here, this wasn’t what he expected. That he left his job where he was getting paid more for this, and he feels like it was a huge mistake,” he said. (The employee in question did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.)
One former manager found a means of dealing with acute pressure: “You start faking meetings.” When he started to feel a panic attack coming on, he would say he had to meet someone off-site and he would walk to a nearby coffee shop that had benches outside. “I would go to turf there and lay down and look at the sky for 20 minutes and just try to calm my breathing,” he said. “I was just nonfunctional.”
Hornsey told BuzzFeed News that about 10 to 15 employees told her in one-on-one sessions over the last five months that they experienced panic attacks while working at Uber.
“I have talked to people, particularly in engineering, I’ve got to be honest, who felt overworked, who felt concerned, who felt heartbroken by some of the things that have happened,” Hornsey said. “I have to be honest with you. There are people that have been panicked and there are people that have been anxious. If any one person feels like that, it’s one person too many. My job is to turn this into a kind and compassionate and thoughtful company that puts its people first.”
"There were days where I'd wake up, shower, go to work, work until midnight or so, get a free ride home, sleep six hours, and go back to work. And I’d do that for a whole week."
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Uber said it’s made mental health services available to employees since 2015. US employees were eligible for up to three face-to-face sessions with a counselor until January 2017, when Uber expanded its mental health benefits through a company called Lyra Health to include 24/7 counseling via an app, unlimited in-person sessions, and resources for family members of Uber employees. And since April, Uber has expanded mental health services to include on-site counseling services to employees in major offices worldwide. Asked about demand for and usage of these services, Uber declined to comment.
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 were days where I'd wake up, shower, go to work, work until midnight or so, get a free ride home, sleep six hours, and go back to work. And I’d do that for a whole week.”
In April, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Uber engineer Joseph Thomas killed himself in August 2016. His wife Zecole, who found her husband’s body, is now seeking worker’s compensation benefits from Uber after being initially denied them by the company. Through her lawyer, Zecole Thomas declined to comment for this story, but she and her late husband’s father both told the Chronicle that Uber’s competitiveness and high expectations pushed Joseph over the edge.
“The guy just fell apart,” his father, Joe Thomas, told the Chronicle. “If you put a hard-driving person on unrealistic tasks, it puts them in failure mode. It makes them burn themselves out; like driving a Lamborghini in first gear.”
Uber told BuzzFeed News it wasn’t made aware that Thomas’s death was a suicide until five months later, in December 2016. After the Chronicle story came out in April, Uber head of security Joe Sullivan sent an email to all staff explaining that, legally, the company had been prohibited from commenting on Thomas’s death sooner. “We care deeply about our employees well-being,” Sullivan wrote in an email Uber provided to BuzzFeed News. “As a community it’s important that we can talk about these issues openly and share our thoughts and feelings.”
The day after the Chronicle published Thomas’s story, former Uber engineer Yu-En Tsai published a post on LinkedIn titled “Be human, at least to your employees,” in which he discussed the intense anxiety he experienced during his three years at the company. “It's not a surprise I got depression due to lack of sleep for straight several months,” he wrote. “I didn't kill myself but honestly I almost did.” (Tsai later updated his post to say that over time the working conditions at Uber improved, and that he doesn’t claim to be “a victim of anything.”)
Reached by BuzzFeed News, Tsai said he didn’t want to talk about the post. But in the comments on the LinkedIn post, he did respond to some of the 14 self-identified current and former Uber employees who expressed their sympathy, support, and concern. “A healthy work culture is more important than anything,” wrote one.
“I am grateful to my family for supporting my decision to leave this place after only a few months,” wrote another. “Sometimes money just isn't worth it.”
Hornsey started in January. But in the years before that, employees say, HR was inadequate.
“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. Hornsey admitted to employees in a June email provided by Uber to BuzzFeed News that the HR team had been understaffed, but said the department was increasing its head count and adding more resources.
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.
Until recently, Uber used a ranking system that both measures employee performance on a scale of 1 to 5 and tries to predict future performance on a scale of 1 to 5. Employees who get 4s and 5s can expect big bonuses and maybe promotions; employees who get 1s and 2s are put on performance improvement plans, a sign that they should start looking for new jobs.
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.
"On an individual level, it seemed like the systems were designed to make you feel like you were never good enough."
Six months later, when the time came for the operations employee’s first performance review, he was surprised to hear that he, too, had been deemed a bad fit, specifically because he too often left work before 7 p.m. in order to spend time with his family. After that, he said, “[I] went in every day thinking I was going to get fired. That was one of the more psychically damaging and challenging parts of it.”
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.”
The performance review system used at Uber — until the company pledged to revamp reviews when it announced the results of the Holder report — is known as stack ranking. The system places all employees into categories, such that some must be ranked at the bottom, essentially pitting colleagues against one another. It’s similar to systems that have been used at Microsoft, GE, and, perhaps most infamously, Amazon. There are clear parallels between Uber and Amazon, a company that’s also notorious for its cutthroat, high-octane work environment. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is an Uber investor. Uber’s chief product officer Jeff Holden, who joined the company in 2014, is a nine-year Amazon veteran. Uber’s 14-point value system is said to have been derived from Amazon’s, though Amazon’s — which includes “insist on the highest standards” and “have backbone; disagree and commit” — is slightly more subtle.
Some former and current Uber employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News felt that one way to avoid falling to the bottom of the stack ranking pile was to ingratiate themselves socially with their managers and other power players inside the company. Depending on what team you were on, that could mean staying at work until midnight in hopes of running into Kalanick on the floor. In other circumstances, it could mean putting in hours at the bar.
“There was a lot of pressure to go to events and drink. That was seen as making your way up,” said one former Uber employee. “If you weren’t participating in that party culture and going to all those drinking events, you weren’t going to get promoted. You’d get sidelined.”
"It was the only place I’ve ever worked where people would get aggressively drunk at work and continue working."
Said another, “If you wanted to be recognized and noticed, you had to be social. Having to go out drinking with the team was a big deal.” A third former employee likened the environment at one company retreat to that of “a frat party.”
One former employee cited a personal concern about substance abuse as one of his primary reasons for leaving Uber. “It was the only place I’ve ever worked where people would get aggressively drunk at work and continue working,” he said. “It was also a powerful wake-up call for me wanting out.”
Last month’s workplace culture report advised Uber’s board members to limit the access to alcohol employees have at work, especially during core work hours, and to deemphasize its role in work events. Specifically, the report says that “Uber should support work events in which alcohol is not a strong component to ensure that employees who do not partake in consumption of alcohol still have opportunities to engage in networking and team building activities.”
Even employees who didn’t experience consequences to their health often take long breaks to recover after finally calling it quits at Uber. One person, who left Uber around the beginning of the year, told BuzzFeed News she took a few months off to “recover and recuperate and get back my confidence, because people there treat you like shit all the fucking time.”
Another, who took three months off after quitting, said leaving Uber “felt like [I] got out of prison.” Another former operations employee said even though he left the company involuntarily, he “immediately felt liberated.”
Not every Uber employee described their experience at the company as a time of suffering. One engineer described his own workload as manageable and his managers as fair, but said some teams were more stressful than others. For example, the engineers working on Uber China were pushed especially hard, in part because of how important the now-failed China expansion was to Kalanick. “If I experienced what my coworkers experienced, I probably wouldn’t still be at Uber,” he said.
Another former employee said the perks of working a fancy tech job sometimes felt like a justification for how hard everyone was working. “You keep giving Uber the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “We have good coffee here, we have good food, a cushy office, some of the brightest minds in the world.”
"You keep giving Uber the benefit of the doubt. We have good coffee here, we have good food, a cushy office, some of the brightest minds in the world."
And there are some people who genuinely found Uber’s corporate culture rewarding. “There was a pretty strong correlation between the highest performers and how hard they worked,” said a former senior employee. “Most of the people who worked nonstop were also important people getting a lot done.”
For years, one former operations person said, the intensity and camaraderie at Uber was fulfilling; the harder he worked, the more quickly he was promoted, and the larger his bonuses were. The culture was brutal but efficient, and high performers were always rewarded; as the company grew, his sense of validation swelled. The experience, he said, was not dissimilar to being an addict.
“The highs were incredible,” he said. “But no addiction turns out to be good.” After a few years with almost no breaks, his enthusiasm started to lag. As he scaled back the amount of work he was doing, his rise through the company's ranks slowed. Eventually, he quit.
Other Uber employees who’ve put in the hard time are also learning to set boundaries for themselves. One engineer who’s still with the company said when he started the job he was new to California. Previously, his hobbies included skiing, photography, cooking, and hiking. But after he started at Uber, those activities melted away.
“It was easy to sink 100% of my life into [Uber]. I'd definitely say that on all dimensions, life outside of work suffered,” he said.
But three years, two internal investigations, and much soul-searching later, he says he’s learned to separate his self-worth from what’s happening at Uber.
“They're not able to prioritize our health,” he said. “So I probably shouldn’t be killing myself for this.” ●
Significant additional reporting by William Alden, Ellen Cushing, and Charlie Warzel.
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