Amid Uber’s current stream of crises, including the exodus of some high-level execs, another controversy has come knocking at the company’s door.
The latest issue goes all the way back almost three years ago, when a team of Uber managers (four males and one female), along with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and her then girlfriend Gabi Holzwarth, went to an escort-karaoke bar in Seoul, South Korea.
Holzwarth, a professional violinist who dated Kalanick for three years, recalled that the bar had escort women who bore numbered tags. The male managers selected women who would join their table by calling out the girls’ numbers.
While prostitution is illegal in South Korea, businessmen who frequent these high-end escort-karaoke bars can still choose to have sex with the women.
In an interview with The Information, Holzwarth maintains that she really doesn’t know what happened after the men had selected some women to sit with since she and Kalanick left in less than an hour. The female Uber marketing manager, who was also with them at the time, also left early.
About a year later, the unnamed female exec reported the overseas outing to the company’s HR head, complaining that it had made her uncomfortable.
Holzwarth said that she and the female Uber manager also talked about it via instant message. The complainant reportedly told Holzwarth that she also discussed the complaint with Kalanick.
“[I]t made me feel horrible as a girl (seeing those girls with number tags and being called out is really degrading),” the manager was quoted as saying.
That was just about the last time Holzwarth thought she would hear about it until she got a call from Uber’s senior VP of business Emil Michael (among the escort-karaoke group) just three weeks ago.
In their phone conversation, Michael said he was worried that the incident in South Korea would somehow leak to the press. He asked her repeatedly that, if in case anyone asked about it, she is to say that the group merely visited a karaoke bar and “had a good time.”
She told The Information that Michael’s attempt to “silence” her prompted her to discuss the issue with Kalanick and Uber’s top public relations executive Rachel Whetstone, among other people.
“I’m not going to lie for them,” she said, describing Kalanick to be a “part of a class of privileged men who have been taught they can do whatever they want, and now they can.”
It was not reported how the complaint was resolved but the woman is still reportedly at the company. According to an Uber spokeswoman, the issue had been referred to Tammy Albarran and Eric Holder in early March. The two were reportedly tasked to lead an investigation into Uber’s workplace culture.
In a statement to The Information, Emil Michael said, “Given the intense news cycle I thought it was the right thing to do to reach out and let her know that reporters may try to contact her directly. I have known her for a long time, consider her a friend and did not want her to be taken by surprise. Her recollection of this conversation was different from mine and I am very sorry if the purpose of my call was misunderstood.”
Just a month ago a former Uber engineer named Susan Fowler wrote a fiery blog post which alleged rampant sexism and discrimination at the company. An independent investigation was also conducted shortly after, leading to the exit of several top executives.
As the company was reeling from the high-profile controversy, it then received a patent-infringement lawsuit from Alphabet‘s self-driving car unit, Waymo.
Shortly after, a dashcam video of Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver surfaced.
And then days after that, the New York Times reported that Uber had been using a feature that showed investigators a fake view of the Uber cars on the road close by.
Earlier this month, Kalanick had announced his search for a COO to help him. As the company’s reputation continues to deteriorate, finding a seasoned executive may prove to be a challenging task.