The Uber Files: Lack of ethics and morality over ‘free market place’ will continue to haunt Uber

Bayes experts in strategy and entrepreneurship on why the business model will face questions after release of the Uber Files.

Uber’s failure to correctly promote itself as a free market place to drivers combined with a CEOs drive to be competitive in a progressive space for start-ups are key reasons the business model is coming under such heavy scrutiny.

Academic experts at Bayes Business School have commented on the organisation’s treatment of staff and its operating practices following the release of the Uber Files.

Professor Charles Baden-Fuller, Centenary Chair of Strategy, and Dr Ruben van Werven and Dr Nettra Pan, Lecturers in Entrepreneurship, believe the company’s attitude and its early stage processes have played a role in the criticism of its practices.

Professor Baden-Fuller was critical of Uber’s claims about its digital taxi service, and said the attitude of the company needed realignment.

“Clearly MacGann did wrong, but the company’s culture is also at fault. The whole attitude of Uber has been ‘we are a market place’ and by implication ‘it’s not just passengers who are free to choose but also drivers’.

“This publicity has always been incorrect as, at its core, Uber drivers are not free. There are a multitude of restrictions including when drivers can turn up to get rides, their ability to refuse rides, the limited amount of information drivers are given, and the limited time they must process that information on passengers before they have to accept the job – the list goes on.”

Professor Baden-Fuller added that there is a better model that can be followed, such as that used by Airbnb, which launched shortly before Uber in 2008.

“True matchmakers, such as Airbnb, have avoided similar criticism. This is because renters and home owners are under no coercion on their sites, although there are minor lapses on both sides that need to be such as not giving enough attention to appeasing neighbours.

“Uber, and copy-cats, have an ethical and moral responsibility to own up to what they are really doing on their platforms and to be honest to drivers, passengers and regulators alike.”

Travis Kalanick’s style combined with era of progressive start-up a possible recipe for disaster

The files lift the lid on the processes of Uber four years after its origin. Dr Ruben van Werven believes imprinting – entrepreneurs inscribing their ventures by making important decisions early on – can explain what happened at Uber; the mix of the ideas of former CEO Travis Kalanick and the ambition of the start-up were the point of origin for what followed.

“Imprinting is the idea that the environment a start-up is in at the time of founding, as well as characteristics of the founding entrepreneur, can leave a long-lasting mark on the company,” said Dr van Werven.

“This may mean that the combination of Uber being founded in 2009, when everyone started getting seriously excited about revolutionary start-ups, and Travis Kalanick’s style sowed the seeds for the kind of behaviour that has been exposed in the Uber leaks.”

Uber’s spark into life must serve as warning to policymakers in next decade

Dr Nettra Pan adds the emergence of a company like Uber should not have come as a surprise. More importantly, she says similar trends will occur, and it is the responsibility of governments to consider these if similar events as the violent taxi strikes that occurred in France are to be avoided.

“The kindling was ready and only awaiting a spark,” said Dr Pan. “It was not a matter of if such a company would be founded, or even when as the conditions started emerging, but by whom? And supported by whom?

“Venture supporters and policy makers should look forward and try to consider the inevitable products that are bound to launch in this decade and that, when launched, may render whole professions, if not obsolete, then at least feeling the pain to the point of violent chaos, as hardworking taxi drivers fighting for their livelihood will attest.”

Dr Pan also highlighted the ways entrepreneurs can think in ‘the thrill’ of business. She believes values can be forgotten and become warped as the conscience rationalises decisions.

“The personal values that founders commit to upholding and defending can make a huge difference in minor decisions (for example, Uber's decision to put up a 'God View' of all customers worldwide). Yet initial goals are easy to forget in the thrill, urgency and excitement of making sure your business survives. What founders started off wanting to achieve becomes quieter and easier to brush away so this voice of conscience simply asks, ‘what if we do this differently?’ (e.g., put up God View in a way that protects personal customer data).

“The good news is that the right questions can be amplified with processes and traditions that work for each team, and these practices can help founders nudge their profit-driven companies into a more profitable, mission-driven ones.”


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