Stay Updated on Developing Stories

Stressed out and at risk: Inside Uber's special investigations unit

(CNN Business) The internal investigators tasked with keeping Uber safe were overworked, underpaid and at times emotionally traumatized as they struggled under the burden of nearly 1,200 cases every week, a confidential internal memo obtained by CNN says.

The 26-page memo, prepared by an outside risk management consultant, says that as recently as May last year, Uber's Special Investigations Unit was handling hundreds of cases every week. The team — which was made up of 60 investigators and 15 team leaders at the time — was tasked with handling the most severe incidents reported to the company in North America, including verbal threats, physical and sexual assault, rape, theft and serious traffic accidents.

Uber commissioned the memo as part of its "broader efforts to stand up a best-in-class, specialized investigations team," a company spokesperson told CNN.

Although the memo notes that the team members loved "being associated with a 'hot' brand" and its younger employee base, it also said conditions were so bad within the unit that the memo warned of mental health risks to the investigators — even the potential of suicide.

"A single suicide by an Uber investigator who posts that they could not 'take' the job demands any longer will be fodder for the national if not international news media," the memo said.

Uber sent lengthy responses to CNN detailing the action they say the company has taken since the memo was completed. "We have been putting safety at the heart of everything we do," Uber's head of safety communications Brooke Anderson said in a statement. "Uber will continue to focus on safety in 2019, including through the release of an accurate transparency report."

Investigators experienced 'profound stress'

Uber has repeatedly over the past year said that safety is its number one priority. But the company is still reckoning with the problems that have come along with its aggressive push to scale globally.

The memo notes that, as of May, most of the SIU's investigators were in their 20s and 30s. According to a CNN analysis of former and current employees, one Uber investigator went from being a Starbucks barista to handling calls from victims. Another was a manager at Chipotle before he became an investigator. The memo also says many of the SIU's investigators had "law enforcement, investigations and military backgrounds."

The memo cites a "serious level of stress and anxiety of team members," and notes that six members of the unit were "experiencing profound stress requiring clinical care."

"The issue of untreated depression ... because of a massive caseload and the concern that an investigator must acknowledge that they are not coping well is not only real but increasing," the memo said.

In addition to obtaining the internal memo, CNN spoke with seven former Uber employees familiar with the unit, including investigators and managers. All spoke on the condition of anonymity citing fear of retribution and professional repercussions for speaking out; one cited a non-disclosure agreement.

In an email to CNN, an Uber spokesperson said these types of issues are not uncommon for "fast-paced, crisis-related jobs involving tough issues," such as 911 operators, adding "[w]e are (and have been) very focused on ways to support our safety response agents, including helping them cope with the stress and challenges of this important job and ensuring we have the right people with the necessary skill sets to manage these sensitive, serious issues."

Uber also took issue with the memo's description of the SIU's caseload, noting that some cases might be duplicates or proven fraudulent after further investigation. The memo said the "SIU team manages nearly 1,200 cases per week" and noted "Although some reports shared with the SIU are frivolous and later found to have no merit or constitute fraud, we were told that most of cases reported have some basis of substantiation."

The memo cites the financial and reputational damage that severe incidents can have on the company, which is slated to go public in 2019, noting that trust in Uber "is eroded by periodic, but serious allegations of inappropriate or illegal conduct, notably by drivers and occasionally by hostile passengers."

It was shared with select people at Uber, one former manager told CNN. A separate CNN investigation in April 2018, found evidence of 103 drivers accused of sexual assault or abuse by passengers since 2014, based on publicly available data including police reports.

After CNN began asking questions about sexual assaults, Uber announced increased safety measures including a partnership with RapidSOS, a company that sends a rider's location and relevant information to a local police agency when the rider uses the emergency button in the Uber app. Uber also revamped its background check policy, now conducting annual checks on drivers. Following the airing and publication of CNN's investigation, Uber announced it would do away with a policy that previously forced individuals with sexual assault complaints into arbitration and made them sign non-disclosure agreements.

How Uber tracks complaints

For more than a year, CNN has been pushing Uber to reveal its data on allegations of sexual abuse and assault on its platform, but Uber has said the numbers will not be ready until sometime in 2019.

The former manager said Uber has always had numbers and keeps track of complaints in real time, adding that the consultant's memo was initially "shelved" at Uber.

Another former manager told CNN: "It's a technology company built on data. The numbers are known."

Uber disputed that allegation, saying that its numbers are in the process of being audited. In November, the company announced a new taxonomy for how it categorizes complaints like sexual misconduct, assault and rape. Its next step is to publish the data.

The company classifies complaints based on severity levels. The SIU handles the highest levels: Level 3's, or L3's as they are referred to internally, include physical assaults and crashes. Level 4's, known as L4's internally, include rape, sexual assaults, and any deaths on the platform, according to sources.

The memo also outlines the risks to Uber's bottom line should the SIU's caseload become public.

"We know from the underreporting of incidents by CNN and others as just one example, the cost to the brand and reputation of Uber by a single case can cost the company millions of dollars in lost revenue from riders who hold a lasting impression that we are unsafe and not worthy of their trust," the memo stated.

The memo states that compensation is how employees measure self-worth — and recommends that Uber raise its hourly rates to "attract and retain superb investigative talent."

Uber, which has raised more than $22 billion in venture capital funding, paid its investigators around $18.50 an hour, according to the memo.

That's low compared to investigators working for airlines and bus companies, for example. The memo cites those investigators earning around $26 an hour and $21.80 an hour, respectively. Both, like Uber, are non-union jobs too, according to the memo.

At Uber, investigators receive some specialized training upon hiring. All agents on the SIU team undergo eight weeks of training, including sensitive investigations, bias and empathy training, an Uber spokesperson said.

Investigators get assigned new cases by a designated staff member, the former manager said. While that staff member tries to assign cases involving sexual assault to seasoned investigators, sometimes there is little information in the original complaint sent to Uber, or the investigators best suited to the case are busy with other work or not staffed during the shift, the former manager said.

Investigators assess the validity of claims from riders or drivers by talking to the person who reported the incident and the alleged perpetrator. They decide the outcome of each case, which can include banning a driver or rider from using the service in the future.

Inside Uber's Phoenix office

The memo says investigators "love working for Uber," but it also points out that members of the team were "experiencing fatigue, sleep deprivation and numerous issues."

The memo noted that "the investigators working for Uber deal, at least dozens of times every workday, with volatile, argumentative persons. They directly interact, sometimes several times a day, with perpetrators and victims- some of whom use vile language, make direct and indirect threats, discuss deeply disturbing sexual and other assaults."

One former employee who spoke with CNN said they felt they were treated fairly at the company, while noting that there was little opportunity for pay increases or promotions. The memo similarly warned, "Uber is not meeting best practice standards with regards to articulating what a career roadmap looks like for an investigator."

In conversations with CNN, several former employees discussed the mental toll of the job, something that ate away at the initial thrill of being hired by the most valuable startup in the US.

The office itself was also a cause of frustration for some SIU investigators.

The company declined suggestions to soundproof the open-floor workspaces used by the SIU team, two individuals told CNN, making it difficult to conduct sensitive conversations on the phone without office chatter seeping into the calls. Both said that people on the other line sometimes questioned the seriousness of investigations due to the background noise.

In one instance, an investigator was on the phone with an alleged sexual assault victim when people on another team began singing "Happy Birthday" to a colleague. The victim hung up on the investigator, a former manager said.

An Uber spokesperson said that following the memo, doors were added to the SIU team's area to provide more privacy and quiet for their work. The office also includes two dedicated rooms for sensitive calls, the spokesperson said.

The memo suggests a number of other changes, such as career mapping for SIU members as well as trainings including how team leaders can spot and escalate warnings for at-risk investigators. It also includes more simplistic changes, such as adding soft La-Z-Boy chairs and stationary bikes. This is a "modest budget item" that can "make a difference when a person needs a few minutes to decompress after interviewing a victim/perpetrator and considering how they will process next steps," the memo said.

Uber said it has implemented or is in the process of implementing "all key recommendations" from the May memo, including counseling, better work schedules and conditions, and additional training. The company is also hiring more experienced investigators.

The company has repeatedly declined to specify when it plans to release its data on sexual assaults and other incidents that occur on its platform, other than to say it will be sometime in 2019.

"When it comes to safety, we believe getting the data right is critically important and the foundation of future improvement," Anderson said in a statement. "That's why we are working with experts to audit our safety incident data, so that it can be responsibly released, as we have committed publicly to doing this year."

Additional reporting by CNN's Madeleine Ayer and Curt Devine. Video by CNN's Collette Richards and Harshal Vaidya.
Paid Partner Content