Former Uber Engineer’s Lawsuit Claims Sexual Harassment

Posted May 21, 2018 11:37 p.m. EDT
Updated May 21, 2018 11:42 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — A former engineer at Uber sued the company Monday, claiming that co-workers sexually harassed her and that its human resources department failed to act on her complaints.

In the lawsuit, Ingrid Avendaño, who joined Uber in 2014 and left last year, also said that despite receiving praise for her work, she was denied promotions or pay increases in retaliation for reporting misconduct at the company.

Avendaño said many of her complaints went ignored. In one incident, she said, she told the human resources department about a male software engineer who repeatedly said at a recruiting event that Uber was the “type of company where women can sleep their way to the top.”

She said that human resources did not investigate her claim and that, a few months later, the same male engineer told other groups of people in the company that Avendaño had gotten a job at Uber only because she had slept with someone. The engineer was eventually fired after she complained again, according to the lawsuit.

Another male senior software engineer touched her upper thigh on a retreat while intoxicated and then made repeated sexual advances, telling her that she was “so cute” and that he wanted to “take her home,” the suit says. On another occasion, it says, male co-workers commented on her physical appearance.

“Each time Avendaño raised concerns regarding unlawful conduct, she was met with Uber’s entrenched disregard for the rights of its women employees and a refusal to take effective steps to prevent harassment,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in California Superior Court in San Francisco.

Avendaño had been one of the three named plaintiffs in a class-action suit against Uber over discriminatory pay practices resulting in lower wages for women and minorities. But she opted out of the collective action because her situation differed significantly from the 420 members of the class. In March, Uber agreed to settle the suit for $10 million.

The latest lawsuit is another reminder of the toxic workplace culture that critics say was allowed to fester under Uber’s former chief executive, Travis Kalanick. Avendaño left the company before Uber hired Dara Khosrowshahi as chief executive in August. He has pledged to stamp out that type of misbehavior.

Last week, Uber said it would no longer force people with claims of sexual harassment or sexual assault to deal with the matter in arbitration, allowing them to bring individual cases against the company in open court. The company pointed to the policy change as an indication that Uber was living up to its new motto: “We do the right thing. Period.”

Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesman, said Monday that Uber was “moving in a new direction.” Over the past year, he said, the company has changed how it compensates and evaluates employees, published diversity reports and trained employees on diversity and leadership. He did not directly address any of Avendaño’s claims, saying Uber would not comment on pending litigation.

Avendaño’s claims of sexual harassment and a human resources department uninterested or unwilling to curb the problem is reminiscent of issues raised by Susan Fowler, another former Uber engineer, who brought intense scrutiny to the company when she published a blog post about her time at Uber.

Fowler said that when she reported her direct supervisor for sexually harassing her, management told her that it wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him because he was a high performer and that it was probably an innocent mistake. After her post, the company hired Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, and his law firm, Covington & Burling, to investigate the claims and assess its workplace. Uber fired 20 employees for sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct based on the report’s findings.

The lawsuit raises questions about Uber’s human resources department. After the Holder report, Uber took the unusual step of bringing on another law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, to investigate certain complaints about human resources.

Uber’s Kallman said the company took such complaints seriously and worked with outside law firms to “ensure the independence of the investigation.”

Avendaño said that when she learned from co-workers that the company had decided not to punish the man who sexually harassed Fowler, she informed her bosses and human resources that they had mishandled the situation and were creating a hostile workplace. She even reported her point of view to Thuan Pham, Uber’s chief technology officer, she said.

She said she was reprimanded for throwing senior officials “under the bus” because she took the matter directly to Pham.

As a result of the stress she felt at work, Avendaño said, she was hospitalized for extreme anxiety and took medical leave. When she returned to work, she received a low performance rating for not meeting Uber’s standard to “make magic.”

As part of the lawsuit, Avendaño is seeking, among many things, compensation for lost wages, earnings and equity. She is also seeking to regain her position at the company with “appropriate seniority and compensation.”