Uber Ethics: Emil Michael Has To Go

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What a dilemma. You are a 17 billion dollar technology firm, known for developing the technology application that supports the burgeoning car-hiring business, and most recently for expanding into music streaming by partnering with Spotify. Then one of your key executives is recorded, Mitt Romney-style, as he tells a reporter at a business gathering that the company should deal with negative publicity by doing “opposition research” on reporters and exposing their private lives in retaliation. Now what?

This is where hot tech start-up Uber is at the moment. The executive is Uber Vice President Emil Michael, a key figure in the company’s growth and success.  At a private company dinner in New York, he speculated that Uber could spend $1 million to hire a team to do the equivalent of “opposition research” on journalists who were critical of Uber, to dig into their private lives and family secrets. A reporter from BuzzFeed who was a guest at the event made Michael’s off-the-cuff comments public, setting off several rounds of high visibility attacks from various quarters—Sen. Al Franken called for an investigation—and apologies from Uber management, including Michael, whose statement said…

“The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner – borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for – do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.”

I rate this a category 7 apology on the Ethics Alarms apology scale:

7. A forced or compelled version of 1-4, in which the individual (or organization) apologizing may not sincerely believe that an apology is appropriate, but chooses to show the victim or victims of the act inspiring it that the individual responsible is humbling himself and being forced to admit wrongdoing by the society, the culture, legal authority, or an organization or group that the individual’s actions reflect upon or represent .

Not so good. He tries to justify the comment. He adopts the Pazuzu excuse, claiming that he inexplicable said something he doesn’t believe. He doesn’t say he’s sorry, he says he regrets the comments, which is ambiguous: regrets because they were despicable, regrets because they reflect poorly on him and his company, or regrets them because a weasel reporter was within earshot?

Should the comment lose Michael his job, as some have argued? “I’m not surprised they haven’t fired him,” said Joe Fernandez, the co-founder of social-media analytics company Klout Inc., where Michael had previously worked. “The Uber board has known him for 10 years …They know what Emil is really about and I’m glad they didn’t make a rushed decision under a huge amount of pressure.”

“What he’s really about” isn’t the issue, however. A core member of Uber Technologies management proclaimed favor for a tactic that is ruthless, vindictive, designed to intimidate journalists and calculated to limit what is reported to the public. Is this typical of the attitude in the executive suite? Is this the prevailing culture at Uber? Is this the attitude that is nurtured among middle management and staff? How can we know, unless the company emphatically rejects the sentiment and its originator?

As long as a Emil Michael is a primary force and influence at Uber, I don’t see how the company can be trusted in any respect. A Vice President works there who opined that extortion is a legitimate and useful business tactic, because he thought nobody who heard his comments would take offense at them. What other conduct would he approve of? What does that say about his values? What does it say about a company if its response is, “No biggie: the guy makes us a boatload of moolah! He just needs to learn to restrict ideas like that to the board room”?

A company that wants to build an ethical culture and reputation would demote or fire him. If Uber does not, that tells us a great deal about the way they are likely to do business. It is signature significance.


Sources: Huffington Post 1, 2, Bloomberg


14 thoughts on “Uber Ethics: Emil Michael Has To Go

  1. Not sure I have a problem with what he said. I see a certain amount of poetic justice in smug reporters seeing their own tactics turned against them. Why shouldn’t the world know all about the person who writes the news, same as those who make it?

    • Because that’s not the reason behind it, or its likely effect. The intent is to make reporters fearful of reporting the truth. That is per se unethical, and honest, ethical companies have neither need nor stomach for such measures.

  2. Your readers might enjoy reading a blogpost by the Founder and Editor in Chief of Pando – the pointed target of Emil’s original attack.

    After reading that litany of behavior by Uber, I think one has to agree with you; you can’t trust a company that doesn’t fire this guy.

    There are a lot of issues in this story, but I’d like to highlight one – the one about principled behavior. A lot of companies talk about their behavior being based on values, principles, and the like. Silicon Valley, and Uber as much as any of them, loves to cloak itself in a super-set of Aquarian values and communitarian greater-good. We all remember Google’s “do no harm,” a pretty clear statement of aspirations.

    Then there’s reality. Silicon Valley is as full of hypocrisy as any place else, and certain rules therefore apply as well. One is, the test of principled behavior is the willingness to fire people who go against the values. If you don’t fire someone for egregious values violations, who can possibly take you seriously? Answer – no one.

    This is simply a clear-cut case. I bet dollars to doughnuts he stays in the firm, because the firm clearly and simply doesn’t believe in the values it espouses. It believes in the values it lives – clearly values based more on frat-boy behavior amongst the entire executive team than about any decent set of citizenship-based beliefs.

  3. And to make it more fun, the “journalist” reporting on the remarks works for a company that is financially backing an Uber competitor. Not defending the exec, just highlighting that the guy is as trustworthy as your regular Moore or O’Keefe.

    • A potential source of bias which should have been flagged in the original story by the journalist. Yes, I almost got into the matter of BuzzFeed, which is not exactly The Christian Science Monitor.

  4. There are rotten reporters and ones who are biased, but doxxing them is no real reply to any misdoing. I think that makes it clear you have nothing better to say as objections. Trolls can be and should be ignored, but exposing bystanders and relatives to stalkers should not be approved by any company executives.

  5. I think that what he said in his apology was what he really meant – That he could in theory do it, but wasn’t actually going to. I think he was frustrated by a journalist who was writing articles he didn’t agree with, with the unreported bias of being financially tied to his competitor. Journalistic ethics for the win, right? We’re taking an off the cuff, throwaway comment at a private event and are treating it like it’s stone hewn company policy.

    • As with Romney’s “47%”, as with Earl Butz’s racist joke, as with Obama’s infamous “guns and religion” gaffe, as with every overheard remark that is designed for one audience and gets read by another, it’s unfair, but you can’t unring the bell. A real apology might have helped, though.

      • Perhaps. It just grinds me that we really don’t have private conversations anymore. Private functions, discussions on the street, heck, even hotel rooms aren’t protected anymore. It smacks of thought police. We have to assume that not only are we talking, we’re talking and being judged by society, it makes us colder, I think.

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