When Dara Khosrowshahi was appointed as CEO of Uber last year, to give the embattled ride-hailing company a fresh start, he brought along his old friend Barney Harford, the former CEO of travel booking site Orbitz, as Uber’s chief operating officer.
Uber’s drivers, passengers and investors had high hopes in Khosrowshahi and Harford to fix Uber’s discriminatory culture created by founder and ex-CEO Travis Kalanick. But, just one year into the company’s new journey, Harford came under fire himself for creating a discriminatory work environment. In a July story, The New York Times revealed that the new COO once used racist language when critiquing a new ad during a company meeting.
Specifically, Harford questioned the choice of showing a mix-raced couple in the ad, saying the commercial’s audience may not find the pairing common or relatable, according to five anonymous sources who spoke to the Times. The story also alleged that Harford had made insensitive comments toward women on other occasions.
The revelation instantly drew the attention of workplace equal rights activists. The most prominent and outspoken member of the group was Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit who now advocates for diversity in tech through her nonprofit, Project Include. In a tweet shortly after the Times story came out, Pao openly criticized Khosrowshahi for hiring Harford. “Dara worked with Harford for years; this behavior can’t be news to him. Is he clueless or does he just not care?” she questioned.
On Thursday, Khosrowshahi reacted to Pao’s criticism for the first time during his appearance at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. His response in short: Barney is a good guy.
“I’ve known Barney for years and years and years. He is an incredible person, and he cares. I don’t think that a comment that might have been taken as insensitive and happened to be reported by a large news organization should mark a person. I don’t think that’s fair,” Khosrowshahi said during an on-stage interview with TechCrunch.
“I’m sure I have said things that happened to be insensitive,” he continued. “The question is: Does the person want to change? Does the person want to improve? Does the person understand that, when they did something wrong, they [should] change behavior. I’ve known Barney for years, and that’s why I stand 100 percent behind him.”
On the same day the Times broke the story, Harford issued a memo to all Uber employees, saying he regretted the behavior.
“In the course of conversations with some of you, I have been embarrassed to learn that at times I made comments that made people feel uncomfortable, isolated or unwelcome,” Harford said in the memo, which was obtained by Business Insider in July. “Certainly that was not my intent, but I make no excuses for my behavior. To those of you who I hurt with careless words, I’m sorry.”