A component of corporate sustainability is the trust that a company earns in protecting the interest of the communities it impacts. This was a central theme at Sustainability Week, hosted by Berkeley Center for Law and Business and Berkeley’s Business in Society Institute, in November.
At the event I spoke to Tony West, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer, on how Uber is taking a leadership position to tackle a problem that not only impacts its business model and reputation, but the communities it serves and beyond — sexual misconduct in all its forms.
Rose Ors: What is the role of the GC and the legal department in creating a culture of corporate trust and sustainability?
Tony West: Uber’s organizing principle is to do the right thing — period. It is the principle that informs everything we do in the company. I view our legal department as the conscience of the company. It is our duty to be the source that helps the company achieve its business objectives while doing what is right for our shareholders and our stakeholders. My constant refrain with my legal team is, “You are here to do the right thing — period.”
Rose Ors: How does the legal department act as the conscience of the company?
Tony West: I have set out three values for the legal department to live and uphold: transparency, integrity, and accountability. That means that in every matter that we handle, we do so in line with these principles. When we give our clients advice, we do far more than provide them with a list of the pros and cons of a decision. We make recommendations that keep the ship on course. That’s our role as the stewards of the company’s reputation and mission.
Rose Ors: How did you come to have this view of the role of the legal department as stewards?
Tony West: I’ve been fortunate to be part of organizations that are mission-driven. The experience has instilled in me a deep sense of responsibility to preserve and protect the sanctity of the mission. So, I feel a responsibility for the entirety of the enterprise, even though I’m not doing every job in the enterprise. It’s like when I tell some of the business folks, or some of the [legal] ops folks, “Listen, compliance is not in your title, but compliance is your job, too — it’s everybody’s job.” Because, everybody comes to work at this place called Uber, and we all believe in its mission.
Rose Ors: Uber is focused on providing a safe environment for its driver partners and passengers. How do you operationalize this corporate priority?
Tony West: I think part of operationalizing our focus on safety is to put metrics in place that are tied to safety. We use these metrics to measure our success as a company. We have incorporated them into how people are compensated and otherwise rewarded.
It is an ongoing process of looking at our business practices and asking, “How do we establish and maintain trust?” Trust is at the center of sustainable growth. Uber’s success is tied to the trust we earn each and every day. After all, we are asking people to trust us with their safety or the safety of someone they love.
Rose Ors: Is the focus on trust the principal reason Uber is peeling away the veil of secrecy on sexual misconduct?
Tony West: We are committed to the safety of our driver partners and riders. A significant first step for us was to develop a systematized approach to identify, categorize, and count incidents of sexual misconduct — actual behaviors reported to Uber by our riders and driver partners. This taxonomy is the first of its kind.
We will be publishing a transparency report using the taxonomy that will detail incidents of sexual assault and harassment on our platform. It’s a first, and significant step in addressing the problem.
Rose Ors: What impact do you hope Uber’s lead in tackling this particular safety issue will have on other customer-facing industries?
Tony West: Although built for our business, the taxonomy is platform neutral. Its purpose is to improve the collection of data on sexual misconduct. This systematized approach can be used by companies in the transportation and hospitality sectors or any similar customer service environment. It is our hope they will adopt it.
Rose Ors: How does the taxonomy help reduce the incidences of sexual misconduct?
Tony West: It is an essential first step. What is important about the methodology is that, by providing a common lexicon, we can take more focused action to eliminate sexual misconduct. We can then share best practices with other companies who also use the taxonomy.
Rose Ors: I know you have been in conversations with other companies about using the taxonomy and publishing their own “transparency report.” How are those conversations going?
Tony West: I would say that the reaction from other companies has been cautious optimism. Look, I am asking companies to do something that is hard. I am asking them to count up bad things that happen on their platforms and publish that. Nobody wants to do that willingly. It usually takes regulation to mandate such disclosure.
I am proposing that they join us in doing the right thing and do it voluntarily. Taking a proactive step to increase accountability and transparency is what will strengthen our ability to identify concrete ways to prevent sexual misconduct. Moreover, in doing that, we enhance the safety of our business model, and that is a sustainability benefit.
You have made the point that there is a false dichotomy between innovation and compliance. I think the example you just gave supports your point beautifully.
Tony West: Here is another example that we are very proud of. Before UberX, there was no insurance product that would allow you to pick up and drive passengers to their destination for a fee. We had to create a whole new insurance product. This innovation covers every single Uber ride — the driver and the passenger — for the period they are in the vehicle together.
Rose Ors: What is Uber’s larger responsibility to society?
Tony West: I believe there is a real hunger for corporate leadership in solving every day, real problems that people face. At Uber, we welcome that opportunity.
We want to be a force for good. We want to be a part of the solution that makes us a more sustainable planet, that makes us a greener planet, that makes mobility something that is accessible to everyone regardless of whether they can afford to take a taxi, or whether they live in a neighborhood that’s not served by public transportation. Because with mobility comes freedom.
Moreover, with freedom comes amazing opportunities — and that can transform individual lives and whole communities.