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by Phil Stott | July 19, 2017


Ruined office building with broken windows

Here at Vault, we're all about trying to help people figure out which companies they want to work for—with our advice typically based on a combination of factors like work-life balance, company culture, and the like. The more you know about a prospective employer, our theory goes, the more likely you are to make a decision that you're happy with (and that will therefore also make your employer happy).

If you want to know why we take that perspective (as opposed to, say, just encouraging people to go after well-known companies offering lucrative salaries), look no further than Buzzfeed's recent breakdown of the corporate culture of embattled tech-darling-that's-fallen-to-Earth Uber. While the whole article is worth reading, here are a few choice highlights that should leave you in no doubt about the kind of red flags to look for the next time you're researching or interviewing with a company.

Most revealing, to me, is this quote about former CEO Travis Kalanick's management style and expectations:

“Travis used to always talk about redlining,” said one former employee, referring to the practice of driving a car at maximum speed. “Once it starts to get to the top of the meter, it gets in the red zone, which means your engine is about to explode. If you weren’t redlining, you weren’t working hard enough.”

Anyone who's driven a car with a manual transmission will recognize the problem with Kalanick's vision for how he expected his employees to work—and how what he thought of as a perfect metaphor for getting more work out of those employees was in fact a better metaphor for how you destroy the most important part of your vehicle: its engine.

Put simply, cars are not designed to be driven at the red line. In fact, most of them operate at their most efficient when they're being driven well below that maximum capacity: in a high gear, with plenty of capacity to spare. While it may be fun to push your vehicle to its limits from time to time, it's certainly not a strategy to pursue if you're hoping for a long-term relationship with said vehicle—or, in a workplace environment, with your employees. That's something that comes over clearly in the rest of the Buzzfeed piece, and in the following snippets that I've chosen:

“There was a three- to four-month period where I was getting woken up every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3 or 4 in the morning to fix something,” said an engineer who started at Uber in 2014 of his earlier years there. “Months of that, on top of working 10-plus hours a day.” 


“I felt like I was on call all the time,” said one employee. “I got texts on the weekends. Emails at 11 at night. And if you didn’t respond within 30 minutes, there’d be a chain of like 20 people.”


"Employees described impossible workloads, around-the-clock emergencies, fear of management, a total erosion of work-life balance, and a pattern of public humiliation at the hands of higher-ups as Uber pushed to become the juggernaut it is today. Many attributed panic attacks, substance abuse, depression, and hospitalizations to the stress of the job." 


“It’s a money cult. People are putting up with massive amounts of abuse, mental abuse, constant threats to fire you so you’re losing your equity,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “The equity, people see that as their future, their retirement, the reason they moved to America, or why they moved halfway across the country, or across the country.”


As one former employee said, explaining why he joined the company, it seemed like a “libertarian playground where the best would rise to the top.” But, he said, “I quickly realized that environment also means work becomes a blood sport.”


“I never even thought of spending the weekend not working,” said one employee. Another said it “was a problem” with management that he left work at 6:30 or 7 to be with his family.

Again, each of these comments is a mere sampling of the full run-down of what employees told Buzzfeed reporters about life at Uber. And, it should be noted, these are mainly from corporate and tech employees—there's very little mention of conditions for the drivers that, without whom, the company would not exist at all.

But even this sampling demonstrates the value of research during your job search: not just reading reviews of the company, but finding out what kind of message the people at the top are sending out to those further down the chain. Because make no mistake: while the culture and the excesses at Uber may only now be in the spotlight, they were by no means a secret.


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