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Uber Considers Leave Of Absence For CEO Travis Kalanack


And Uber is having a meltdown. We're going to explore that on this week's All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: Uber is the most popular ride hailing company on Earth. It's also one of the most valuable private companies ever, estimated to be worth about $70 billion. And it's hemorrhaging leadership. There are reports that the CEO, Travis Kalanick, is going to take a leave of absence. Several senior leaders have already left the company, and at least 20 employees have been fired following a sexual harassment investigation.

Now here to talk about all this and more is NPR's Aarti Shahani. Hey there, Aarti.


CORNISH: We were just hearing your investigative series on Uber drivers which raised a lot of labor issues, and I'm going to get to that in a moment. But first give us an update on the corporate headquarters.

SHAHANI: Yeah, lots going on - two updates there. One is, yesterday - that is Sunday - the board of directors for Uber got together with Eric Holder to talk about his report. Uber hired the former attorney general to take a hard look at the company and what's wrong with its culture in light of rampant sexual harassment concerns. And the board has adopted all of his recommendations unanimously. We'll find out exactly what those recommendations are tomorrow when the report goes out to employees.

CORNISH: And you said this is a two-fold update. What's the second thing?

SHAHANI: Right. So the second is that Travis Kalanick may be taking a leave of absence. We really don't know too much about this yet, but a couple weeks ago, his mom died in a boating accident, and his dad landed in the hospital - so I mean really horrible personal loss. And it could be he just needs a break. It could also be that leadership is losing faith in his ability to pivot the company.

Uber has a lot of leadership lacking right now. They need a chief operating officer. They don't have a head of engineering, which is really bad for a tech company. Just this morning, a guy who's supposed to help turn things around, Emil Michael, announced his resignation.

CORNISH: And there's so much churn at the top. All people can focus on is the corner office. But you've been reporting that their problems go a lot deeper - right? - down to the drivers.

SHAHANI: Yeah, and, you know, this is key. Employees at the company and investors both told me that the existential threat to Uber is actually its damaged relationship with drivers, right? And it's not that hard to believe. It's pretty simple. Uber relies on the driving workforce, 600,000 people in the U.S. alone. And Uber says, hey, you can be your own boss. That's their tagline. And that lets Uber off the hook from paying employee benefits, giving drivers sick days and paid vacation days.

NPR went ahead and interviewed dozens of drivers and surveyed about a thousand. And what we ended up finding is that hundreds of drivers feel deeply controlled by the company. And I'd add there's a real public safety issue here, also. Seventy-nine drivers told NPR they do really long shifts, OK, 14 hours or longer on the road. Three even showed us documentation for 20 hours in one day. I mean those are serious miles and a threat to others.

CORNISH: Yikes, 20 hours - what does Uber have to say about this?

SHAHANI: Well, about that, you know, Uber could design the app to lock out drivers and make them stop driving after 14 hours. Their competitor Lyft does that. But when I asked the company about it, a spokesperson there was adamant that Uber is a flexible work opportunity, so people can drive whenever they want.

CORNISH: Aarti, before I let you go, you know, it seems like so many things are going wrong at Uber. Why does it seem like this company has just plain gone off the rails?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) Two ideas - one is that there's growing pains, right? A company grows really, really, really quickly. And things go wrong, and they have to redirect. They have to, quote, unquote, "pivot." That's one explanation. The other idea - maybe it's bad behavior coming back to bite them, that when Uber was first growing, you know, Silicon Valley tolerated sexual harassment in the workplace, but now there's been so much public backlash, it's not OK anymore.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Aarti, thanks so much.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.