HR chief Liane Hornsey explains how she’ll banish the sexist culture that has made the taxi app the world’s most beleaguered business

If Liane Hornsey is in the midst of a crisis, she’s sounding remarkably unruffled. Addressing People Management from her home in San Francisco, she’s at pains to point out that life at Uber – where she has been chief HR officer since January – continues as normal. But the clue is in the timing: it’s a Saturday morning and rather than relaxing in the Silicon Valley sunshine, the British HR leader is busy conducting a round of interviews as part of a hiring spree.

The focus on recruitment is understandable. Since Hornsey joined, Uber – already beset by criticism of its business model and employment practices – has been rocked by accusations of systemic sexism prompted by a blog post from engineer Susan Fowler, and has seen CEO Travis Kalanick resign following a range of corporate scandals including his own foul-mouthed rant against one of the ride-hailing app’s drivers.

Hornsey does at least have the pedigree to take on such a challenge. After spending almost a decade in the top HR role at Google (she had previously worked for lastminute.com and NTL in the UK, among others) she understands both technology and the start-up culture that underpins it. And as she explains, she’ll need her full set of HR skills in the months to come.

How would you describe to an outsider what it’s like to work in Silicon Valley?

There’s a particular vibe here. Innovation is central – there is a desire to do the next thing, to solve the next problem. There is a lot less tradition and a lot less respect for tradition. What’s valued here is the ability to think ‘beyond’.

I didn’t realise how different it was until I came here. And this might sound unbelievably unintelligent, but the heightened sense of being happy in the Valley is definitely accentuated by the sunshine. Unlike in London, for example, a lot of the workspaces are external and a lot of the colour, such as the eating spaces, is out in the sun. It feels like a campus.

What’s different in HR terms?

Talent is highly sought after, and in particular there is a dearth of engineering talent. So many firms want engineers, particularly in areas such as AI and machine learning. Businesses really have to make themselves attractive workplaces. It’s not a nice to have, it’s an economic necessity that differentiates the Valley.

Google sets the tone here both because it is one of the biggest companies and it did things differently when it launched. When Google started with free food, beautiful campuses, plenty of open space and real consideration around benefits, it started to become the norm.

The psychological contract is also different. There is no working somewhere for life. There’s no expectation that you will be anywhere more than five or six years, but there is an expectation that you will learn while you’re at a company – it’s a mutually beneficial, two-way thing.

Do we look to US tech businesses too much for ‘best practice’?

I think HR professionals in every business should look at what firms like Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb are doing. But they need to remember that not everything these firms have done is brilliant – they’ve made mistakes and have had to adjust along the way as well.

At the same time, you’ve got to be cognisant of your own culture. Every business has its own unique culture and its own problems to solve. What works for Google might not work for Jaguar.

How does the need to fight for talent change the way you recruit?

Like other companies in the Valley, we interview engineers for technical competence and test for it. But some of the firms I’ve worked for and know well also test for cultural fit.

Certainly at Google, and at Uber, we look very closely at culture. Is this person going to prosper in a highly collaborative, team-based environment? If they aren’t, they won’t be hired, even if they have the best technical skills in the world. Fit is critical and Valley companies are very good at testing it, through questioning or behavioural interviewing, because they don’t want to jeopardise it by bringing in the wrong people. And when you do bring in the wrong people, they leave pretty quickly. 

Would you agree you’ve got the toughest job in HR right now?

A lot of people have said that. But I think I have the best HR job in the world, and I mean that. The hardest thing about HR is getting listened to, and getting the leadership to believe in and engage with the need for change. I don’t have that problem. I don’t have to knock on the door – the door opens to me, because everyone in Uber, particularly the leaders, is interested in change and really motivated to change.

It’s hard because it’s complex and because 90 per cent of change programmes fail. Intellectually, it’s extremely challenging – thinking through all the steps of a culture change programme over the next two years that takes everyone with you, where employees are wholly motivated through everything you do. I have the energy and I don’t have the resistance I had in other organisations. I don’t have to prove everything. But I do have to prove through action to the employees that I’m serious, the company is serious and the leadership is serious.

Is the external scrutiny of the company a help or a hindrance to that process?

It’s never easy to be under the microscope. The saddest thing is that I walked into a company six months ago where the employees genuinely believed they were changing the nature of transportation for the better; changing the nature of work for people who needed work. I was talking to someone who has been here three years and he said: “I used to think I was a good person doing good work and now people think I’m a bad person working at a company doing bad things.”

These people were mission-driven and dedicated, and what happened in the media has tainted that and people’s pride in the company has dropped. But it’s my job to use all that’s happened as a lightning rod for change and make sure we can rebuild those things.

What are the main ways you’re trying to change the business?

When I say I thank Susan Fowler for her blog I mean it, because you can’t put things right if you don’t know about them. Having that knowledge has been immensely important.

We’ve done a ton of things. We’ve had investigations running into all sorts of egregious behaviour. We opened a hotline so that anyone with concerns could go to outside counsel, not internal people, to talk about that and get their issues investigated. We have terminated 20 people as a result of that, and that’s significant – that’s 20 people who have lost their livelihoods. A number of others have gone into coaching, had training and been given warnings. We are continuing with that hotline and with zero tolerance.

I’ve increased the number of employee relations people in my team by 250 per cent and that team now reports directly to me. We are taking everything incredibly seriously. We are monitoring complaints confidentially and anonymously. We are watching to see what happens and I am extremely clear that there is no room for inappropriate behaviour. 

Would you be happy to be a female engineer in Uber at the moment?

Yes, I would. My aim is to get more women engineers into Uber. I believe that within about two or three months – because we are so dedicated to diversity and inclusion, more than any firm I’ve ever known – there will no better place in the world for a female engineer to work. 

You’re designing a new performance management system as part of your change programme. What will that look like?

I’ve never met anyone who says ‘wow, I love performance management’ – and that’s sad, because people should love getting feedback from their manager. They should love the opportunity to understand how they’re doing and what they’ve got to do to learn. People don’t, because they find it a difficult process – and that’s not an Uber thing. Most HR professionals would agree.

We sent a survey to the whole company asking how they wanted performance management to change – 3,500 people responded. We then put 600 volunteers into focus groups, and they designed the system we’re implementing now. I didn’t construct it in a darkened room with strategists – our employees created it for themselves.

I’m really proud of what we’ve done, but I don’t know where we go from here. We’re going to ask everyone how it went and where they want to go at year end – which is really important, because that’s where you start to link things to compensation.

Do you believe that link between pay and performance should remain?

Yes, I think it works. It’s not about the money – it’s about the signal that you’ve done a good thing, and my sense is that people want that. And I believe any performance management system should be linked to company performance as well as individual performance, so there’s a sense that we’re all in it together. But we’ll see what everyone says.

What advice would you offer an HR professional who wants to thrive in a business like yours?

It’s impossible to offer great counsel if you don’t understand the business you’re working in. When I sit down in interviews, the first question I ask is: ‘Tell me about your current business.’

I’m not an HR professional for life – I’ve worked in sales, marketing, strategy, customer service and operations. I don’t think you can be a great HR practitioner without having worked in the business so that you have a good appreciation of it, or if you haven’t – and that’s fine – acknowledging that you need to spend time understanding your business.

Are you optimistic that the tech sector will continue to understand the need for strong HR professionals?

There’s never been more need for great internal consultants. The companies that have not done well as start-ups are those that only hire recruiters and don’t hire brilliant HR people. You’ve got to understand how to design organisations – how to make sure the behaviours are right. The need for intelligent, informed consulting will never go away – if it does, companies will fail.