Leaked Documents Show How Uber Embraced Violence to Achieve Its Corporate Ambitions

Uber managers were encouraged to capitalize on violence as the company pursued rapid growth, according to a new trove of leaked internal documents.

Close-up of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wearing a tuxedo at a Vanity Fair event.
Uber founder Travis Kalanick walked away from his own company with 8 percent of Uber ownership in 2017. Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

When Uber (UBER) CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down in 2017, the ride-sharing company faced allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, and was under scrutiny for pursuing unorthodox tactics to evade law enforcement, as well as cutting driver pay.

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But it appears such allegations were only the tip of the iceberg. New leaked documents show just how far executives went to fulfill Uber’s corporate ambitions under Kalanick’s leadership, as managers were encouraged to embrace violent tactics that put drivers in harm’s way.

Uber CEO framed violence as means to success

When more than 2,100 French taxi drivers organized a mass protest against Uber in 2016, Kalanick reportedly responded to concerns about violence against Uber drivers by saying such incidents were “worth it” as the startup fought the French government over its presence in the country. “Violence guarantee[s] success,” the CEO wrote in a message to fellow French executives advocating for Uber drivers to counter-protest, according to a leaked document obtained by The Guardian. The UK newspaper received more than 124,000 documents including emails, iMessages, and WhatsApp exchanges between Uber senior executives as part of the leak, and is sharing them with other media outlets through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

In another instance detailed by The Guardian, a top Uber executive in Asia echoed Kalanick’s message of violence when he encouraged managers to stay focused on growth even as “fires start to burn.” “Know this is a normal part of Uber’s business,” the executive reportedly told managers as Uber launched across India. “Embrace the chaos. It means you’re doing something meaningful.”

This tactic of weaponizing violence in order to curry favors with local authorities played out in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands, according to The Guardian. When Uber drivers in Amsterdam were attacked by masked men claiming to be taxi drivers in 2015, the startup reportedly encouraged the victims to file police reports which in turn helped convince the Dutch government to grant the company concessions. “We keep the violence narrative going for a few days, before we offer the solution,” one manager explained in a message.

Uber continues to use protests to its advantage

In a statement, Kalanick’s spokesperson Devon Spurgeon called the allegations in the ICIJ report “completely false” and said the consortium rejected requests to review the documents, raising concerns about their authenticity. The former CEO “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety,” Spurgeon said.

Uber spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker didn’t deny the allegations but emphasized changes that have taken place at the company since Kalanick’s resignation, which include the appointment of a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, the installation of a new leadership team, and investments in safety.

While few of the executives who worked under Kalanick are still at the company, Uber remains the target of global scrutiny and has continued to use public demonstrations to advance its agenda. After Uber services were temporarily banned by the Belgian government in November, the company appeared to back protest actions by hundreds of Uber drivers across Brussels in order to drum up public support for the company. As Uber drivers blocked major routes across the Belgian capital, local officials ceded to the company by announcing new reforms and an intention to get workers back on the road.

Leaked Documents Show How Uber Embraced Violence to Achieve Its Corporate Ambitions