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Why Uber is turning to Eric Holder in a moment of crisis

Eric H. Holder Jr. and his wife, Sharon Malone, in patterned dress in background, say goodbye to Justice Department employees in Washington on April 24, 2015, as Holder steps down from the post of attorney general. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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Silicon Valley technology firms seem to be taking cues from the same legal playbook: When grappling with accusations of discrimination, hire former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. to investigate.

Uber retained Holder on Monday after a former employee published an account of alleged sexual harassment at the company, including being propositioned by a manager. Last summer, Airbnb hired Holder to review its anti-discrimination policies after complaints of racial bias involving its hosts.

Crisis management consultants say high-profile companies commonly hire outside advisers with prominent names and sterling credentials as a way to signal to their customers, employees and the public that they plan to treat the allegations seriously.

“It’s almost like a firewall that you throw up to stop the advance of an inferno,” said Larry Kamer, the chief executive of crisis management firm Kamer Consulting Group. “It’s a big headline-grabbing step that’s not about how bad it is here [at the company], but what we are doing about this problem.”

During Toyota’s rapid-acceleration scandal in 2009 and 2010, the automaker hired former Department of Transportation chief Rodney Slater to lead its internal investigation, Kamer said.

As the Obama administration’s first attorney general, Holder was credited with helping to pave the way for legalizing same-sex marriage, making changes in the criminal justice system and pushing back against restrictive voting laws. California legislative leaders retained his services this year to advise on their legal differences with President Trump.

Holder, a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling, also previously lobbied on Uber’s behalf to dissuade lawmakers in New Jersey and Chicago from requiring that drivers have their fingerprints taken as part of background checks, according to the AP. Holder argued the practice was unfair and potentially discriminatory, the AP reported.

Holder and Uber declined to comment for this story.

But Holder isn’t the only banner name Uber has asked to review the allegations that human resources ignored or penalized women for reporting discrimination. The company also tapped Huffington Post founder and Uber board member Arianna Huffington, giving a famous female business leader oversight of an issue that most commonly afflicts female workers.

Huffington met for an hour Tuesday with Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick and Uber’s new human resources chief, Liane Hornsey, to discuss the treatment of women in the workplace, she said in a statement.

“Travis spoke very honestly about the mistakes he’s made — and about how he wants to take the events of the last 48-hours to build a better Uber,” Huffington said. “It was great to see employees holding managers accountable. I also view it as my responsibility to hold the leadership team’s feet to the fire on this issue.”

The latest controversy arose after a former engineer wrote that she and other female staffers reported multiple instances of sexual harassment and discrimination to the company’s human resources department but that it took no action.

Bringing in big names such as Holder and Huffington is just the first step, and that will only engender so much goodwill for the company, consultants say. Uber must give them autonomy to fully investigate the discrimination claims and then disclose their findings to employees and customers.

“Companies have in the past made the mistake of thinking they can rent a famous person’s halo and put it over themselves and have it cast the same glow,” Kamer said.

At Airbnb, Holder helped the company to draft a new nondiscrimation policy that required hosts to treat all guests the same regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or other characteristics protected under the law.

Richard Levick, the CEO of crisis communications firm Levick, said the fact that Uber already hired a new human resources director in January suggests the company is probably seeking to cast the discrimination claims as an issue of the past that the company will address as it moves on.

“Ultimately, you can already see where the strategy is going to take them,” Levick said.

Uber is no strange to controversy, and the latest allegations — and their potential ramifications — must be viewed in that broader context, the consultants said.

Most recently, consumers started a social-media campaign to delete the Uber app after the company ignored a taxicab strike in New York aimed at protesting the recent White House executive order banning entry to the United States by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries. That incident and an accompanying outcry prompted Kalanick to step down from Trump’s business advisory council. An Uber executive once suggested intimidating journalists, and company staffers has been accused of accessing users’ private data, according to published reports.

“For crisis guys like me, they would be an annuity because they just continue to generate these yellow-light and red-light situations,” Kamer said. “I don’t think that’s going to change.”

This story has been updated. 

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