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Uber To Pay $4.4 Million To Employees Who Were Sexually Harassed At Work

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Uber will pay $4.4 million to employees who were sexually harassed at work. The settlement resolves an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that found Uber allowed a culture of sexual harassment and retaliation. The investigation came after a series of scandals that led to the ouster of Uber's co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick in 2017. More than two years later, Uber is still trying to clean up its workplace culture. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is here to discuss it.

Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the settlement.

BOND: Yeah, this is just the latest chapter in these long-running issues with Uber's culture, in this case about sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting that harassment. So in this settlement, Uber will pay $4.4 million into a fund for current and former employees with complaints dating back to 2014. And that amount might not be big, but Uber doesn't come out looking particularly good from this. It's agreed to have its workplace be monitored by a former EEOC commissioner for three years.

And the message that this federal agency is sending is really to the entire tech industry. EEOC officials say the settlement will hold Uber accountable, but they also hope it will encourage other workers to speak up about sexism in tech.

SHAPIRO: Explain more about why the EEOC was investigating Uber in the first place.

BOND: Yeah. This goes back to early 2017. A woman named Susan Fowler, who is an engineer who had recently left Uber, wrote this really shocking blog post describing a toxic work environment there. She said, right when she first started, her manager propositioned her, and she later heard from other women this wasn't the first time that had happened. When she complained, she says HR and management protected the manager, who they said was a high performer.

And that post really set off this chain reaction. There was an internal investigation. Twenty employees were fired for bad behavior. And this and other scandals ultimately culminated in the ouster of Travis Kalanick, the CEO, that summer, and federal regulators, including the EEOC, began looking into Uber.

SHAPIRO: And what did that EEOC investigation find?

BOND: Well, the EEOC says it found, quote, "reasonable cause to believe that Uber permitted a culture of sexual harassment and retaliation." And that matches what other investigations over the years about Uber have found. You know, Dara Khosrowshahi, who replaced Kalanick as CEO, has pledged to change Uber's ways, and he has made some changes. They got rid of a requirement that sexual harassment and assault complaints be settled in arbitration. Those claims can now be taken to court.

SHAPIRO: How significant is this settlement in the context of a company like Uber? Four-point-four million dollars doesn't sound like a whole lot of money.

BOND: Yeah, it's not much money at all, especially here in Silicon Valley. I mean, remember - Uber is a company that brought in $11 billion in revenue last year. That's less than a tenth - the amount - the settlement is less than a tenth of the pay that CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took home last year. And Uber's paid other, bigger settlements. Like, last year, it paid $10 million to settle claims of race and gender discrimination.

So I asked this question to Adrienne Lawrence, who's a lawyer and has a book coming out about sexual harassment in the workplace. I asked her what she made of it, and here's what she said.

ADRIENNE LAWRENCE: So when we consider how much this $4.4 million settlement fund is, it's really just a drop in the bucket.

BOND: But she says the settlement also sends an important message to employees and other tech companies.

LAWRENCE: The possibility of facing workplace penalties, fines and continuing to really be subject to government monitoring, that is something that Uber and a lot of tech companies, they don't really want.

BOND: And we know sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in Silicon Valley, not just at Uber. So the hope is this will put other companies on notice, too.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Thank you.

BOND: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.