Uber director Arianna Huffington succinctly explains the value of a healthy corporate culture

Arianna Huffington wants Uber employees to relax.
Arianna Huffington wants Uber employees to relax.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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To explain how a healthy culture can help fix the problems at Uber, board member Arianna Huffington uses a corporal metaphor.

“Culture is the immune system of the company,” Huffington said yesterday (Sept. 26) in New York at The CEO Initiative, a conference organized by Fortune and Time magazines. “Bad behavior is like a virus. We’re not going to eliminate viruses in the same way we’re not going to completely eliminate bad behavior, but a healthy culture can surface the problems before they spread.”

A sexist and abusive culture at Uber—first widely publicized in a blog post by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler—led to a lawsuit by investors and the ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick. The toxicity flourished in an atmosphere of hyper growth and a “cult of top performers,” Huffington said. “If you were a top performer who misbehaved, a lot was forgiven.”

The costs of the misbehavior became apparent last week when London revoked Uber’s license to operate, citing its track record of flouting the city’s rules. New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who publicly apologized for Uber’s mistakes in the UK, understands that the company’s culture is hampering its performance, Huffington said.

“It’s clear that what happens in one part of the world affects all parts of the world,” she said. “We need to build trust in every city and our contributions need to go beyond the bottom line.”

Huffington attributes many of the failures at Uber to its relentless pace and a celebration of overwork, which perhaps not coincidentally is the target of the Huffington Post founder’s new business, Thrive Global, which sells $49 online courses to reduce stress. “We are suffering from the delusion that in order to succeed, we need to burn out,” she said.

Luckily for Uber, there will be plenty of opportunities to remake its culture as it fills the many vacancies in its C-suite. Huffington beseeched the assembled executives listening to her talk: “If anyone has any advice for (where to find) a general counsel, any advice for a CMO, any advice for a CFO—we are hiring!”