Billionaire businessman David Bonderman, a member of Uber’s board, resigned Tuesday after making what he called an “inappropriate” comment about women at a company-wide meeting that was aimed at addressing the harassment of women and other unprofessional conduct within the company.
The comment came as an interruption of fellow board member Arianna Huffington, who was explaining the benefits of having more female representation on Uber’s board.
“There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” said Huffington, according to several people who heard the remarks.
“Actually,” Bonderman interjected, “what it shows is, it’s much likely there’ll be more talking.”
“Oh, come on, David,” Huffington said, in between awkward laughs. Addressing the crowd, she added, “Don’t worry, David will have a lot of talking to do, as well.”
In an email that was sent later to company employees, Bonderman said, “I want to apologize to my fellow board member for a disrespectful comment,” calling it “inappropriate.”
Bonderman, the 74-year-old co-founder of a private equity firm, also apologised personally to Huffington.
“David has apologized to all Uber employees for a remark that was totally inappropriate and against the new culture we are building at Uber,” Huffington said in a statement.
A few hours later, Bonderman resigned and released this statement: “Uber is examining the issues with its culture, and making significant changes and working to right what has been done wrong, which is extremely important for the future of the company. I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud. I need to hold myself to the same standards that we’re asking Uber to adopt.”
Huffington also issued a statement praising Bonderman for his decision, “I appreciate David doing the right thing for Uber at this time of critical cultural changes at the company.”
The incident came as Uber sought to move past a leadership crisis that has led to the departure this week of chief executive Travis Kalanick for a leave of absence and the exit of his close ally and confidant Emil Michael, a senior vice president at Uber.
Kalanick’s return date was not specified, and his responsibilities will undergo “review” to possibly shift some duties to other executives. He also faces the likelihood of reduced clout on the board, which is adding new “independent” members and creating an oversight committee to monitor efforts to improve corporate ethics and diversity.
“The ultimate responsibility, for where we’ve gotten and how we’ve gotten here rests on my shoulders,” Kalanick wrote in an email to employees. “There is of course much to be proud of but there is much to improve. For Uber 2.0 to succeed there is nothing more important than dedicating my time to building out the leadership team. But if we are going to work on Uber 2.0, I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve.”
In describing reasons for the leave, Kalanick also cited the death of his mother and serious injury of his father in a boating accident last month, saying, “I need to take some time off of the day-to-day to grieve my mother, whom I buried on Friday, to reflect, to work on myself, and to focus on building out a world-class leadership team.”
Tuesday marked the release of recommendations from a report by former US attorney general Eric Holder Jr. on Uber’s workplace culture. Holder had been hired by Uber to address mounting criticism of the company. The full report is being withheld from the public and the bulk of the company’s 14,000 employees worldwide.
The 47 recommendations, which are sweeping and touch virtually every aspect of company management, were released at an employee meeting at the company’s San Francisco headquarters Tuesday after being accepted by the board at a marathon meeting Sunday.
Under the proposals, senior managers will undergo mandatory leadership training and Uber’s current position of head of diversity will be renamed as the “chief diversity and inclusion officer” and report directly to the chief executive or chief operating officer. Uber also will adopt the equivalent of the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule” requiring that when the company is filling a key job, at least one woman and one minority candidate be interviewed before the hire can go forward.
The report called for employee complaints to be handled using a comprehensive process and for upgrades to employee benefits, including equal family leave time for male and female workers. There also is a newly imposed ban on sexual relationships between employees at different levels of the staff hierarchy, and there are new limits on the consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs during the workday and at company events.
Uber also announced Monday that it was adding a new member, Nestle executive Wan Ling Martello, to one of several empty seats on the board. She is expected to bring financial expertise while representing another high-profile female addition to a company criticized as exemplifying Silicon Valley’s male-dominated “bro” culture.
“This is a hugely significant event,” said Michael Useem, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said of the corporate overhaul.
The list of recommendations reads like a textbook from “Leadership and Management 101” and, if implemented effectively, could serve as a model for other Silicon Valley companies grappling with diversity and harassment issues, Useem said.
The public mood toward Uber began to turn when Kalanick joined an advisory board for President Trump and appeared to undermine a New York taxi strike related to the president’s controversial effort to impose a travel ban, sparking the #DeleteUber movement.
A scathing blog post in February by former engineer Susan Fowler, who reported that an unwanted sexual advance by her boss was ignored by company management, triggered a wave of denunciations of the corporate culture at Uber.