Amidst Uber’s recent problems surrounding its workplace culture, a new incident involving a company trip to a South Korean escort bar has been brought to light, according to a report published by The Information. The 2014 incident prompted a complaint to the company’s human resources department, and recently came to light when company officials tried to get their stories straight with former employees.
The report outlines a trip by a group of Uber employees to a Seoul karaoke-escort bar in 2014, which included company CEO Travis Kalanick and his girlfriend, Gabi Holzwarth. After arriving, several male employees picked escorts to sit with, and went to sing karaoke. Uncomfortable, a female marketing manager, who was part of the group, left after a couple of minutes, while Holzwarth and Kalanick left after an hour. The manager later complained to the company’s HR department, noting in the exchange that “[I]t made me feel horrible as a girl (seeing those girls with number tags and being called out is really degrading).” In another exchange to Holzwarth, the manager noted that she didn’t realize what was going on until they “got into that room.” According to The Information, it’s not clear how the issue was resolved.
Following a blog post by a former employee that highlighted the company’s sexist workplace culture, Uber’s senior VP of business Emil Michael reached out to Holzwarth, who has since left the company. He asked if she had spoken to reporters, and if she would tell people that they had just gone to for karaoke, and that they “had a good time,” if asked. Feeling pressured by the exchange, Holzwarth spoke with the company’s public relations executive, Rachel Whetstone, as well as Kalanick, saying that she wouldn’t lie if asked. She told The Information that “she wouldn’t have considered speaking publicly had Mr. Michael not attempted to ‘silence’ her.”
An Uber spokesperson said in a statement to The Information that “this all happened nearly three years ago. It was previously reported to human resources and in early March was referred to Tammy Albarran and Eric Holder,” while Michael noted that he had only intended to get ahead of the news cycle, and that his purpose for the call was misunderstood. In 2014, Michael made headlines after he suggested that the company should target reporters who write about the company negatively.
The intense focus on Uber’s internal workplace culture has sparked an investigation led by former US Attorney General Eric Holder and Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, and has prompted company executives to leave. However, that investigation has been criticized by Uber employees, who were concerned about Huffington’s ability to remain impartial during the investigation, and after an interview with CNN in which she claimed that sexual harassment wasn’t a systemic issue at the company.