Uber is taking steps to make it easier for survivors of sexual harassment and assault to come forward and make their voices heard.
The San Francisco-based ride-hailing company has announced that it would eliminate the requirement of arbitration clauses for any employee, driver or rider who says they have experienced sexual harassment or assault. And it will not require any survivors to sign on to non-disclosure agreements if they wish to speak out about their claims.
“As we look at ways to improve the safety of the Uber platform, you really cannot do everything to enhance the safety without dealing with sexual harassment and assault,” Uber chief legal officer Tony West (pictured) said in an interview with Legal Week sister title Corporate Counsel prior to the announcement.
“What is important to us is making sure we’re helping to facilitate victims to choose the venue of redress where they will seek some sort of justice whether through mediation, arbitration or open court,” he explained.
The announcement comes about two weeks after a CNN investigation revealed that more than 100 Uber drivers have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the last four years. Abuse by drivers is a known issue with the company, and a class action was filed last year that alleged widespread sexual assault by drivers and demanded change from Uber.
The recent CNN piece prompted US Senator Richard Blumenthal to put pressure on Uber to end the practice of arbitration clauses.
“Claims subject to forced arbitration are relegated to private forums where powerful defendants can stack the deck against claimants and cover up wrongdoing,” Blumenthal wrote in a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
West explained that since joining the company in late November, he and Khosrowshahi have been working to find ways “to do the right thing.”
One way it has decided to separate the company from any questionable behaviour is to address the issue of sexual harassment.
“This is not a response to that [the CNN report],” West said. “These conversations started long before that - from the Susan Fowler blog post, to the #MeToo movement, to the context we are living in. In raising these issues, and rightfully so, we want to have the ability to have this conversation in a meaningful way with external shareholders.”
West addressed the fact that some may argue the removal of arbitration clauses “does not go far enough.” He anticipates that some individuals want the removal of arbitration clauses to extend to matters of gender or race discrimination. He said those are avenues the company will explore further, but the focus right now is on sexual harassment and assault.
“That’s both because of the safety component, as well as the fact that we have heard repeatedly that the most important thing is to give individual survivors the forum they choose to press forward with individual claims and options to tell their story if that’s what they choose to do,” he said.
In addition to removing the arbitration clause for survivors, Uber will give them the chance to settle their claims with the company without any NDA or confidentiality provision that restricts how they speak about the incidents.
“We think it’s important for that decision to rest with survivors,” West said, adding that Uber “will not stand in the way” of how survivors decide to tell their stories.
The third piece of Uber’s strategy to curb sexual abuse is its commitment to publish a transparency report, using data it collects from reports of sexual harassment or assault on the company’s platform.
“No company or transportation agency has done that before,” West said.
He is hopeful that the reporting will lead to other companies doing the same. West said that Uber has had conversations with dozens of women’s groups to discuss what Uber and other businesses can do to reduce the number of assaults.
Uber has also hired advisors from the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, according to a company blog post published by West early Tuesday.
At least on the mandatory arbitration front, Uber is not the first company to shift its policies in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Fellow tech company Microsoft announced in December of last year that it would do away with mandatory arbitration for those employees who claim they have experienced sexual harassment.