Problems in the sharing economy

Discrimination an issue, needs to be eradicated
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/14/2016

Last issue, I wrote of my love of Uber and the antics of its drivers that were both funny and a bit maddening. This time, though, the tale of the Uber driver takes a darker and more serious tone in the wake of a research paper that landed on my desk.

There are problems with the sharing economy, folks, and they lie squarely at the feet of discrimination.

Researchers in the United States found that drivers for services such as Uber and Lyft are avoiding picking up people with African-American-sounding names. The professors — from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Washington — sent graduate students out on rides in Seattle and Boston and found “significant evidence of racial discrimination in both experiments.”

In real numbers, it looks like this — in Seattle, African-American riders had to wait between 29 and 35 per cent longer to get a ride from UberX.

Uber drivers can only see the names and photos of passengers after they agree to pick the person up. What the study found is that, in Boston, an African-American man was three times more likely than his white counterpart to have his ride cancelled after the Uber driver agreed to pick him up.

Those are what academics call “statistically significant” numbers. From this chair, they’re just plain disturbing.

The news doesn’t get any better for women, either. In Seattle, researchers noted that drivers had taken female riders on longer rides than males on similar trips. In the Boston study, the researchers focused more on this issue and found female riders were driven about five per cent further.

And the anecdotal evidence from the women who were participants in the study underscored the fact there’s an issue. In some cases, drivers started the trip before actually picking the passenger up or by not ending it when the passenger got out.

“Other female riders reported “chatty” drivers who drove extremely long routes, on some occasions even driving through the same intersection multiple times,” wrote the authors. “As a result, the additional travel that female riders are exposed to appears to be a combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience.”

The flirting portion is more disturbing given recent headlines involving Uber drivers. Last month, Nephat Sizba, a 55-year-old Uber driver, was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman in Toronto.

In response, the company released a statement noting that drivers go through a rigorous screening process that includes police background checks and that the company takes “every safety incident very seriously and (is) committed to the safety of everyone who uses Uber.”

Given the nature of the sharing economy, and turning the spotlight off companies like Uber and Lyft, how exactly do we do that?

In a traditional organization, this would be the purview of HR. If these were employees, you could reprimand, send them for training, or revise discrimination and harassment policies as needed.

But in a world of independent contractors doing pretty much what they want when they want to, it’s a much murkier situation.

The study authors presented a few solutions that could cut down on blatant discrimination and hidden biases such as not using names and photos to identify passengers and drivers, and performing periodic audits of driver behaviours that appear discriminatory.

Another solution goes the other way and embraces the fact some people are racist jerks. Lyft, for example, immediately shows drivers the name and photo of the passenger. It results in fewer ride cancellations because the racist driver can simply choose not to pick up the passenger in the first place, rather than agreeing to pick the person up and then cancelling when seeing a race they don’t like. The end result is passengers actually end up with shorter wait times.

But we can do better. No employer would simply accept that racism exists. Companies in the sharing economy benefit from not having employees on the payroll. That doesn’t absolve them from poor behaviour. If anything, these organizations should be investing more in solid HR practices to ensure independent contractors are following the law and societal norms.

Better screening, better training — in other words, more HR. That’s what this new sharing economy needs to stamp out this behaviour. 

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