Uber suspends DEI chief after employees complain of insensitivity
Uber has placed its longtime diversity, equity and inclusion chief on furlough after employees complained that an employee event she hosted called “Don’t Call Me Karen” was insensitive to people of color.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and chief people officer Nikki Krishnamurthy last week asked diversity chief Bo Young Lee to “take a step back and take a leave of absence while we determine our next steps,” according to a report on Ms. Krishnamurthy’s work seen by The New York Times on Thursday. Speech to some employees.
“We heard that many of you were distressed and upset about yesterday’s moving forward meeting,” the email said. “While this was supposed to be a conversation, it was clear that those who participated didn’t feel heard.”
Employees’ concerns centered on two incidents, one last month and the other last Wednesday, that were billed as “deep into the experiences of white women in America” and heard from white women who work at Uber, with a focus on “‘Karen’ characters.” Their purpose, according to the invite, is “an open and honest conversation about race.”
But workers instead felt they were being reprimanded for the hardships white women were going through and why “Karen” was a derogatory term, and Ms. Lee dismissed their concerns, according to messages sent on Slack, a workplace messaging tool. Seen by The Times.
The term Karen has become slang for a white woman with a sense of entitlement who routinely complains to managers and reports blacks and other minorities to authorities. According to sources and an employee who attended the event, the staff felt that the event organizers were minimizing the harm that racism and white people can do to people of color by focusing on how hurtful a word “Karen” is. A famous “Karen” incident occurred in 2020 when a black man bird watching in New York’s Central Park asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog, so she called 911.
Concerns over the incidents underscore the difficulty companies face in tackling issues of race and identity, which have become increasingly hot topics in Silicon Valley and beyond. Culture clashes around race and LGBTQ rights have been pushed to the forefront of the workplace in recent years, including a renewed focus on discrimination in corporate hiring practices and a spat between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney over a state law that limits classroom instruction Gender identity and sexual orientation.
At Uber, the incident was also a rare case of employee dissent under Khosrowshahi, who steered the company away from the aggressive, chaotic culture that prevailed under former CEO Travis Kalanick. Mr. Khosrowshahi’s efforts include strengthening diversity initiatives under the leadership of Ms. Lee, who has led the effort since 2018. Before joining Uber, she held similar roles at financial services firm Marsh McLennan and others, according to her LinkedIn profile.
“I can confirm that Bo is currently on leave,” Uber spokesman Noah Edwardson said in a statement. Ms. Li did not respond to a request for comment.
The first of two “Don’t Call Me Karen” events in April was part of a series called “Moving Forward” – discussing the issues that have sprung up in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Race and the experiences of underrepresented groups.
A few weeks after the first event, a black woman asked at an Uber all-hands meeting how the company would prevent “tone deafness, offense and triggered conversations” as part of its diversity plan.
Ms. Lee responded to this question, arguing that the purpose of the “Looking Ahead” series is to have difficult conversations, not to make people feel comfortable.
“Sometimes it’s the right thing to be ostracized because of ignorance of the strategy,” she said, according to notes taken by an employee who attended the event. The comment sparked more employee anger and complaints against executives, according to Slack messages and employees.
The second of the two events, led by Ms. Lee, was intended to be a conversation for workers to discuss what they had heard in earlier meetings.
But in Uber’s Slack group for black and Hispanic employees, workers were outraged that they weren’t given a chance to provide feedback or engage in a conversation, instead being told how they reacted to the original “don’t call me Karen” incident.
“I felt like I was being scolded the entire time of that meeting,” one employee wrote.
Another employee disputed the premise that the word Karen should not be used.
“I think when people are called Karens, it implies that the person lacks empathy for others, or is bothered by other minorities who don’t look like them. Like why can’t bad behavior be called out?” she wrote.
Employees welcomed news of Ms. Lee’s departure as a sign that Uber’s leadership was taking their complaints seriously.
One employee wrote that company executives “heard our voices, they knew we were hurt, and they wanted to understand what happened.”