As a sexism scandal rocks Uber, its CEO Travis Kalanick has been on the defensive, holding all-hands meetings with the company and sitting down with the women in its engineering group to hear their complaints.
Yet there’s one person at the center of it all who has remained conspicuously missing: Uber’s first CEO, current board member, and its head of operations, Ryan Graves.
Graves has apparently “vanished from the office, hasn’t been seen or heard from in days,” one Uber insider told Business Insider. Other people inside Uber confirmed that Graves hasn’t displayed the leadership they would have expected during such a challenging period, but note that he has resurfaced in the office briefly in the last few days after much time away.
It’s a marked absence given that the human resources department reported to Graves directly, not Kalanick, until a couple of months ago. Uber and its HR department are under fire, after a former Uber engineer alleged that it ignored employees’ sexual harassment claims.
Now that the company is facing an investigation into possible systemic problems of sexual harassment at the company, Graves’ absence is leading some inside and outside the company to believe he’s the one about to take the fall – with or without cause.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said a former employee who worked closely with Graves, noting that ousting him would be a largely “ceremonial” move in response to the mounting pressure.
Graves did not respond to requests for comment. An Uber spokesperson declined to comment on Graves’ recent whereabouts or this story.
Graves is a well-liked figure within Uber and has been central to the ride-hailing company’s rapid transformation into a $69 billion powerhouse during the past seven years.
After serving a brief stint as Uber’s first CEO from 2010 to 2011, Graves handed the reins to Kalanick and eventually assumed the role of Uber’s president and VP of operations. That meant overseeing Uber’s “People Operations” team, which was led by Renee Atwood.
The ex Uber employee said that Graves, a former business development intern at Foursquare who attended GE’s management training program, did not have the experience for such an important role at a growing company with thousands of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
The allegations by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler do not provide exact dates and names, and Graves’ involvement in handling the various incidents she alleges is also unclear.
But one person close to Uber’s executive team said he had a bad feeling about Graves’ future at the company when he realized that Graves was the one who was technically in charge of the department during the alleged incidents.
Aside from his job responsibilities, Graves served as an important counter-balance to the aggressive, win-at-all-costs mentality personified by Kalanick. People who know and have worked with Graves say that his attitude and outlook improved Uber’s culture since he was “Mr. Nice Guy.”
His trademark expression of “sumperpumpedness” is even one of Uber’s 14 cultural values.
So Graves’ relative silence during the current crisis has not gone unnoticed by Uber employees.
“They need that kind of steady-hand leadership at a time like this,” said another former Uber employee, in reference to Graves’ absence.
A decreasing role
While Graves technically oversaw the HR department, some people close to the company say placing the blame on his shoulders might not be as simple seems. For starters, Graves is both a board member and a large shareholder, making him harder to get rid of.
Moreover, while the department did report to him, he didn’t keep the direct head of HR in a corner. Atwood, who was head of Uber’s HR department, reported to Graves, but she also had a direct line to Kalanick. As part of Uber’s “A-Team,” the elite inner circle of Kalanick’s star executives, Atwood sat in on regular meetings with the CEO and was responsible for alerting him to any problems that might become a liability.
Atwood left Uber in August 2016. She did not return a request for comment.
Graves also transitioned to a new “resident builder and entrepreneur” role in August 2016, although he retained oversight of the people operations team, and even served as interim head of HR until the company hired Liane Hornsey in January.
Multiple people told Business Insider that Graves’ decreased role in the company began in August. While Graves has not been seen around the office as much recently, it pre-dated the sexual harassment scandal, one person said. Others noted that Graves takes “a lot of vacations,” and thought he might have been out of the office due to pre-planned time away.
Whatever the case, the optics of such an absence aren’t good for someone who formerly oversaw the department that’s now under fire.
Graves’ only public comment about the sexual harassment allegations has been a retweet of Kalanick’s statement on the matter. His social media feed during the past few weeks have been vacation pictures and tweets about climate change.
On Friday, Graves was reported to be connected to another controversy around a special tool called “Greyball” that allowed it to secretly deceive authorities. The New York Times, which uncovered the tool, said Graves was aware of the program that Uber used to evade authorities who might be trying to block the ride-hailing service from operating.
With pressure mounting on the company, many observers believe Uber has no choice but to make a bold statement that shows it’s changing its ways. A change at the top would be the biggest statement Uber could make, but some people close to the company believe Kalanick is too valuable to sacrifice. While many people think ousting Graves won’t actually solve anything, he’s an easy target.
“They definitely have a real crisis,” one former employee said. “Getting rid of Graves wouldn’t address the core issues.”