Joseph Thomas’s widow says the ‘intense work culture’ at Uber is to blame for her husband’s suicide.USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — Last April, Joseph Thomas, a 33-year-old self-taught African-American computer engineer, turned down a job at Apple in order to work for Uber. Five months later, he had killed himself, leaving a trail of questions about whether the company’s fierce work culture was to blame.
Thomas had left his previous employer LinkedIn, lured by a great salary, Uber’s reputation for smart engineers, and the potential for future wealth. The $170,000-a-year job already allowed for the purchase of a “dream house” for his childhood sweetheart and wife, Zecole, and the couple’s two young boys.
In August, Zecole found Thomas dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The tragic outcome, first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday, has led to a lawsuit: His widow contends Uber’s intense work culture was at fault.
“Uber’s culture was different,” Zecole Thomas told USA TODAY. “Here was a man who was very good at what he did, who took care of his family. But within months, he started to tell me that he ruined our life. That he was broken.”
When her husband Joe started to grow despondent, Zecole joined him in a visit to a therapist. Leaving Uber was suggested, but Thomas replied, “’I cannot do it, I cannot think,’ she says. “Joe was shutting down.”
That beaten-down feeling has echoes in the February blog post of ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler, whose detailed account of her year at the company described the ride-hailing start-up run by CEO Travis Kalanick as a toxic and sexist workplace.
Fowler’s claims, compounded by a video of Kalanick berating a driver and reports of questionable business practices designed to deceive regulators, rivals and drivers, have plunged Uber into a full-blown leadership crisis. Kalanick is now searching for a chief operating officer, and the company says that next month it will release the results of an internal investigation led by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder.
In a statement, Uber said, “no family should go through the unspeakable heartbreak the Thomas family has experienced.” It has referred the matter over whether Thomas had filed any complaints to Uber human resources to Holder and his team.
Zecole Thomas says she is suing in part because she wants courts to grant an exception to her husband’s case that would allow her family access to $720,000 in total workman’s compensation that would have automatically been granted had Thomas been in his job six months.
But she also hopes her suit will call attention to “the fact that engineers and IT workers deserve a better work-life balance,” she says.
“The way many of these companies work is they want you to love your job more than your families, with breakfast, lunch and dinner and places to sleep at work,” Thomas says. “But people in IT want to have families, too.”
More specifically, Thomas describes a working environment at Uber that was drastically different from her husband’s previous job at professional networking site LinkedIn, where she and her boys would visit him for lunch a few times a week.
“At Uber, when I asked to do that, Joe said, ‘No, don’t come, it’s not that kind of environment,” she says. What’s more, she says her husband felt his engineering skills were constantly called into question by superiors to the point where his self-esteem cratered.
“He would say, ‘I feel stupid, they’re all laughing at me,’ and yet this was a guy who was as hardworking, driven and focused as there ever was,” she says. “He only had one year of college, but if there was a coding language he didn’t know, he’d study hard and three months later get certificates saying he knew them. It’s all very heartbreaking.”
Richard Richardson, whose employment-law firm Siegal and Richardson represents the family, says it has been a battle to get Uber to turn over documents that would help his firm establish the special circumstances necessary for workman’s compensation to kick in.
Richardson’s firm has been trying to get information about Thomas’ terms of employment (which include a typical non-disclosure agreement that limited what he could say to others about his job), work hours and offer package. Uber refused to allow Richardson to depose Thomas’ supervisor, but a judge has mandated that to go forward.
“Anything we have gotten from Uber has been so heavily redacted (edited), we could barely make out the basic information,” says Richardson. “There may be an expression of public sympathy in the media, but there’s a big gap in turns of how the information has been turned over to us.”
Asked if racism played a role in Thomas’ employment experience at Uber, Richardson says he’s not certain.
“But this is a man who didn’t have a history of crumbling under stress,” he says. “I believe there was a cutthroat environment (at Uber) that had tones of racism in it, in that one big indicator of success is mentorship and leadership. But there is no real black leadership at Uber to help a young African-American employee. I don’t think Uber cares about things like that.”