In 2017, Arianna Huffington became the public face of reform at Uber.
It was Huffington, an Uber board member since April 2016, who spoke to employees at the company’s first all-hands meeting after former engineer Susan Fowler came forward with allegations of sexual harassment in February. Huffington decried the culture of “brilliant jerks,” promised the internal investigation would “leave no stone unturned,” and gave out her email for concerned employees to reach out. The Guardian dubbed her Uber’s “rehabilitator in chief.”
Now, tech blog Gizmodo has questioned whether Huffington was the right person to take on that mantle, claiming she turned a blind eye to sexual harassment at the Huffington Post in recent years.
In May 2014, Huffington told her staff that then-managing editor Jimmy Soni would leave to launch HuffPost India in New Delhi. Gawker later reported that the real reason for the transfer was likely that Soni was being investigated for allegedly harassing young female employees. Soni left Huffington Post in August 2014, ahead of HuffPost India’s planned debut.
Gizmodo revisited the Soni allegations in light of everything that has happened at Uber this year:
A former employee with direct knowledge of the investigation not only independently confirmed that the investigation was indeed the reason for Soni’s transfer, but that Huffington “100 percent knew” about Soni’s actions before they were reported to HR. Another employee in a senior leadership role at that time also confirmed Huffington’s direct knowledge of Soni’s harassing behavior before she sent out the memo, in which Huffington called it a “dream of Jimmy’s, as both his parents were born and raised there.”
At Uber, Huffington was said to be a close confidante of former CEO Travis Kalanick. When the Fowler allegations first broke, she walked a fine line between condemning bad behavior at the company and affirming Kalanick’s leadership. In her comments at the all-hands meeting in February, she said she was persuaded to join Uber after she and Kalanick “connected over the Uber cultural values” and spent two hours talking about them. Those values were later roundly criticized in a review by former US attorney general Eric Holder, and, just last week, were replaced by a new list of “cultural norms.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last month, Huffington equated workplace sexism with burnout. “There’s more sexist behavior when people are burned out,” she said. “They act out. We all know that when we’re running on empty, when we’re exhausted, we operate at our worst.”
Huffington, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the Gizmodo report.
Her public role at Uber has diminished since Dara Khosrowshahi took over as CEO in August. Khosrowshahi, who was behind the new cultural norms, has been clear that Uber needs an internal reset. Fourth on the list of norms is “We do the right thing. Period.” At the DealBook conference in New York last week, Khosrowshahi also acknowledged that Uber, which has been besieged by regulatory conflicts, most recently in London, had been “generally immature in how we deal and dealt with regulators.”