Uber can change its ways, insists HR chief

23 Aug 2017 By Robert Jeffery

Liane Hornsey tells People Management employee relations and performance management will help rebuild the start-up’s reputation

In her first few months as chief HR officer at Uber, Liane Hornsey has faced more moments of crisis than many of her contemporaries shoulder in an entire career.

But despite a perfect storm of executive malfeasance and cultural missteps, she retains her belief that strong HR practice can turn the disruptive taxi-hailing app around. And in fact, she told People Management in an exclusive interview, she is relishing the challenge.

“I think I have the best HR job in the world,” said the British HR leader, who joined Uber in January after almost a decade in the top HR role at Google, having worked for the likes of and NTL in the UK. “The hardest thing about HR is getting listened to, and getting the leadership to believe in and engage with the need for change.

“I don’t have that problem. I don’t have to knock on the door – the door opens to me, because everyone in Uber, particularly the leaders, is interested in change and really motivated to change.”

Since joining the business, Hornsey has seen highly damaging allegations emerge of a sexist culture. What began with the experiences of one female engineer, Susan Fowler, has since become a full-blown crisis that played a key part in forcing the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick.

The eight-year-old start-up was already under fire for what critics call a predatory business model. In the UK, and other jurisdictions, it has faced legal defeat over the employment status of its drivers; a key appeal on this issue will be heard at the Employment Appeal Tribunal in London next month.

Hornsey acknowledged that a large amount of regrettable behaviour had occurred at the company in relation to sexism in particular, but said HR practice was a key part of “rebuilding” Uber. Her team – which includes several new employee relations specialists – is running multiple investigations into the allegations, and so far 20 people have left the business as a result.

Complaints, she added, were being encouraged and a number of other individuals were receiving coaching and training. She said a new performance management process was part of what she described as a major change programme at the San Francisco-headquartered business, which operates in 84 countries.

But Hornsey was also adamant that external scrutiny of Uber had exacerbated the problem – the majority of employees, she said, were “good people doing good work”.

“These people were mission-driven and dedicated, and what happened in the media has tainted that and people’s pride in the company has dropped,” said Hornsey. “It’s my job to use all that’s happened as a lightning rod for change and make sure we can rebuild things.

“When I say I thank Susan Fowler for her blog I mean it, because you can’t put things right if you don’t know about them.”

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