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Uber whistleblower Susan Fowler details harassment, retaliation in new book

In 2015, Susan Fowler was excited about joining high-flying startup Uber -- but was propositioned by her manager on her first day. Just over a year later, Fowler detailed a corporate culture of harassment and retaliation in a blog post that went viral, helping drive out company co-founder Travis Kalanick and other executives. Fowler joins William Brangham to discuss her new book, “Whistleblower.”

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now the story behind one woman's decision to blow the whistle on a culture of harassment and discrimination at one of the highest-flying start-ups in America.

    William Brangham is here now with the latest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • William Brangham:

    Four years ago, Susan Fowler was excited to start her new job as a software engineer at Uber. But she says, on her very first day, her manager propositioned her. That was just the beginning of what followed: a year of harassment and retaliation and lies.

    When Fowler left Uber, she wrote a blog post about her experience. It went viral, helping trigger an investigation that eventually led to the departure of Uber's co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.

    Susan Fowler is now an opinions editor at The New York Times, and she's just published a memoir. It's called "Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber."

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Susan Fowler:

    Thank you so much for having me here.

  • William Brangham:

    This is really an incredible story of your journey through this company and your life surrounding that.

    But I wonder if you could just start by telling us about that first day. I mean, that must have been really an unbelievable experience.

  • Susan Fowler:

    Yes.

    So I had just gone through orientation and training. It was my very first day of, like, real work. And I was sitting down with my laptop, working on a new things. And then my brand-new manager starts sending me some chat messages on company chat.

    And, at first, we talk about work. And then the subject quickly turns to not work. He starts talking about how he's in an open relationship. He's looking for women to have sex with. He's having a difficult time finding women have to sex with.

    So I started screenshotting everything, and I took it to H.R.

  • William Brangham:

    This was your boss.

  • Susan Fowler:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, at any normal company, that kind of behavior gets you kicked out the door right away.

  • Susan Fowler:

    You would think.

  • William Brangham:

    You would think.

    But you take this to H.R., with documented proof.

  • Susan Fowler:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    This wasn't a he said/she said. You have proof in your hand. What does H.R. say?

  • Susan Fowler:

    So, H.R. does an investigation. They come back. They say, we investigated. Yes, he was propositioning you. Yes, this was sexual harassment. However, this is his first offense. He's a high performer. We don't feel comfortable punishing him. We have given him a stern talking to.

  • William Brangham:

    Later, a group of other women, along with you, other women who had been similarly harassed by this guy, go to H.R. to complain as a group, and, still, that doesn't change their mind.

  • Susan Fowler:

    Yes.

    So we all meet with them in a series of meetings. They wouldn't let us all meet together, so they had us do a succession of meetings. And I had the last meeting. I get in there. They say, we thought you were happy with how we handled it. And I said, no, I'm not. You told me it was his first offense. It wasn't his first offense. You have just had meetings with other employees who have reminded you of the other things that they have reported.

    And the woman from H.R. told me that the other employees hadn't been there to talk about him. They had been there to complain about me.

  • William Brangham:

    Which also wasn't true.

  • Susan Fowler:

    Which also wasn't true.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    When you are finding that the people who are meant to be protecting and looking out for you are turning this around on you and all the others, what were you thinking?

  • Susan Fowler:

    Well, I was pretty horrified, because you would think people in authority are there to at least, you know, figure out what's going on and help make sure that there's some sort of justice or fairness.

    And that didn't really seem to be their goal. I still, however, continued to report things to H.R. I had a number of things that happened after that, and as I detail in my book.

    And every time, they would give me the same spiel. They would say, it's this person's first offense. They're a high performer. We don't feel comfortable punishing them. We're giving them a stern talking to, even when it was somebody who I had just reported for something else a few months before.

    But I knew I had to keep a record. I had to keep documentation. And if I didn't keep everything in writing, and if I didn't keep reporting things to H.R., then they would be able to say, oh, she never told us. She never reported this to us. How could we have known?

    And I didn't want them to have that kind of excuse.

  • William Brangham:

    Your book really does document that this was an indictment of an entire corporate culture. What is your sense of why it became so pervasive within a huge company?

  • Susan Fowler:

    There are always going to be individual instances of mistreatment. There are always people that are going to do the wrong thing.

    You know, at normal companies, there are usually checks and balances to make sure that an individual instance of something like sexual harassment isn't covered up and doesn't become part of the culture.

    But at Uber, it wasn't just an individual instance. They had this script that they would read, which tells — which told me at the time, you know, this is not just an individual instance problem. This is, there are no check and balances. This is a cultural, systemic problem throughout the whole company.

    And it seemed very directly tied to Uber's own values, because, at Uber, when I was there, I got this feeling that they really valued aggression. They really valued disruption. Their whole thing was, we disrupt the laws. The rules don't apply to us. The rules are outdated.

  • William Brangham:

    When you're in the midst of all this, being intimidated, being retaliated against, being told what you knew is true is not true, how was that for you?

  • Susan Fowler:

    It really chipped away at my well-being, because people kept telling me that what I had — what I was seeing with my own eyes and what I had documented proof of wasn't real.

    And…

  • William Brangham:

    This is the textbook definition of gaslighting.

  • Susan Fowler:

    It is. It really is.

    And it chipped away at me, because, you know, here I am being told that nothing that I'm experiencing is real, nothing that I'm seeing is real. And that just makes you question yourself.

  • William Brangham:

    At a certain point, you have had enough. You leave the company and take another job.

    There's a question that you debate, which is whether you should come forward and write that original blog post. And you wrote in the book: "Based on everything I knew, sharing my story with the world would likely ruin my life."

    But yet you did decide to come forward and to post this publicly. Why did you do that?

  • Susan Fowler:

    So it seemed to me that standing up for what's right and speaking the truth about situations in the world, standing up for justice, is the right thing to do.

    So, I had this — I had, you know, to make this choice where I had to say, either I'm going to think about the consequences — and the consequences are really bad, right?

    The consequences are, knowing what happens to other whistle-blowers, I'm probably — my career is probably going to be shot. People are going to try to discredit me. Bad things are going to happen.

    And…

  • William Brangham:

    All of which happened.

  • Susan Fowler:

    All of which happened.

    But I had to take that away from — I had to take the consequences away from deciding what to do, because I realized that, if I thought about the consequences, it actually didn't help me make the right decision.

    So I had to let everything else go and say, OK, what I do know for sure? I know that speaking up is the right thing to do. So I have to do it.

  • William Brangham:

    The blog post that you wrote helped lead to an investigation that helped clear out the then-CEO of Uber.

    But we know that these kinds of problems existed at a lot of other companies. So, was it your sense that Uber back then was just on the extreme end of things, or was this a much more pervasive problem?

  • Susan Fowler:

    So, I think that companies exist on a spectrum.

    On this one end, we have, you know, founders and H.R. departments and executives who, if they heard about these kinds of things happening at their companies, they would be horrified, and they would do everything they could to stop it.

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Uber at the time that I was there. And as we have seen in the last few years, with more people telling their stories about mistreatment in the workplace and at schools and in government, you know, there's this giant spectrum, and at the one side, we have Uber.

  • William Brangham:

    You dedicate your book at the very beginning to your young daughter.

  • And you write:

    "It's my hope that, when you are old enough to read this book, the world described within it is completely unrecognizable to you."

    Are you optimistic that that really is going to happen?

  • Susan Fowler:

    I am. I really am, because I start to see — I have seen a difference, even in the past few years, about how we start to talk about these issues.

    The fact that I'm even sitting here today, and we're talking about these things, I think that's a huge step forward. So, the more that we can talk about these things and shine a light on the kind of bad practices that exist, the better it will be.

  • William Brangham:

    The book is "Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber."

    Susan Fowler, thank you so much.

  • Susan Fowler:

    Thank you so much.

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