Umlaut

If Uber Wants to Fix it’s Corporate Culture, It Needs to Add Umlauts

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When Uber was started back in 2009 as Ubercab, no doubt they wanted to indicate they were better than taxis by using the German word for over. Perhaps they recalled the word from German 101, perhaps they were thinking of Nietzsche, whose concept of Übermensch was co-opted and twisted by the Nazis. If they were old enough (and I doubt they were) they may even have recalled the old SNL “What if?” skit that asked what if Superman landed in Germany instead of the US:

Lois Laneoff: X-ray vision? Can you see through my clothes?

Uberman: Ya! And through his, too. [ points at Jimmy Olstein ] He’s a Jew!

Jimmy Olstein: No! No, it’s not true! My parents were just very advanced in hygeine, that’s all..!

As any German speaker will tell you, though, they got it wrong.
It’s not Uber, it’s Über.

The company whose primary purpose is to give drunks rides home has been lambasted in the press and among the public lately for a hostile work environment rife with sexual harassment, and most of it can harken back to the decision to omit those two little dots, the all important Umlaut.

In German, the Umlaut (used with a, o and u) changes the sound of the letter. It turns a u into more of an ooh sound, spoken with pursed lips. American’s have trouble making this sound, even people like me who have heard it all our lives. How many times did my Mom try to correct me on this, and I still couldn’t get it right? It’s even worse for those who didn’t grow up with the language. It’s an utterly foreign sound, and one they can rarely say properly.

Then there’s the fact that the Ü isn’t a key on English keyboards. We English speakers are forced to make do with adding an e after the vowel to indicate an Umlaut. You can still see this in the last names of people who came over from Germany, last names that are chronically mispronounced.

Uber got around these problems by simply ignoring them. That’s how they’ve gotten over a lot of their issues. Don’t like the regulations of a city or municipality, find work-around or flaunt them all together. Don’t like Apple’s terms of use, blow them off (until they call you on it and threaten to pull your app, of course). Don’t want to bother to ensure you have a positive workplace, complete with employee reporting systems and an independent HR function, pretend the problems don’t exist.

But that’s not where the problems ended.

The Umlaut has many uses. One of them is to make a noun plural (Apfel = apple, Apfel = apples, Haus/House, Hauser/houses, you get the idea). Uber has been anything but a pluralistic organization. It’s recently deposed CEO, Travis Kalanick, ran the 14,000 employee organization like it was still some small start-up. The organization took on his personality, not one of its own. Kalanick has been reported to be a win-at-all-cost type of person, and one who is more comfortable with data than people. So it’s no surprise that he was more concerned with building his company than he was about the lives of those who worked there.

Organizations even a tenth of Uber’s size know not to be the product of one person. While the President/CEO may set the tone, there are others in the organization that also influence the tone and establish the culture. There’s an independent Board of Directors. There are vice presidents and managers. I’ve often been lucky to serve under leaders who set the tone by being professional and respectful of everyone in the workplace. But even when I didn’t, there were others to counteract them, soften the atmosphere.

I once worked for a company where the primary stockholder and president was a lawsuit waiting to happen. The other owners banded together and forced him out before anything serious happened. While Uber finally ousted Kalanick, his hold on the company was so strong that it took actual law suits and a drop in stock price to make this happen.

With Uber under new management, it will be interesting to see whether they can change their culture. As its tarnished image continues to drive its customers to rivals such as Lyft, its survival depends on it.

I don’t know if it can be done, but I’ll tell you one thing – No change will be enough until they add that Umlaut.