We need to get real about the language we use to categorise good and bad corporate behaviour.
A few weeks ago I took a cab from Amsterdam Schiphol airport on my way home. A few minutes into the ride, the taxi driver started a rant against Uber; how he had waited six hours for me, his first customer, to arrive. Rides for regular taxi companies have dried up in this city. At first the conversation felt like the usual complaining of a cab driver (and the Dutch do like a good moan), but when we collectively started to unpick the “business model” that he is now forced to operate, whilst also paying for his training, license and cab company, it all seemed grossly unfair. He seemed to be hovering just above the minimum wage whilst supporting a young family at home. I was of course vaguely aware of this, but as a business school academic I had perhaps not felt or seen the situation as starkly prior to my conversation that day. You have to understand that in business schools, Uber is taught as a case of real disruptive innovation and as a technologically superior solution to the age-old problem of getting people from A to B. MBA students in business schools in fact often wax lyrical about Uber, and dream of projecting its technology and business model onto other industries, where they believe it can also, in a technologically progressive way, disrupt the system, and result in significant financial gain.
But the conversation with my taxi driver that night resonated. Especially so, perhaps, as it came in the wake of the ruling the week before by a UK employment tribunal that had lambasted Uber’s description of itself as utter “fiction”. As the judges wrote in their ruling; “The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is to our minds faintly ridiculous”. What the judges pointed to was the way in which companies such as Uber beguile themselves to their customers and the general public with neutral terms and metaphors, such as being a “platform”, “network”, or “marketplace” that simply connects buyers and suppliers. These labels offer images that not only externalise, but reject outright any direct responsibilities that Uber has or might be seen to have as an employer towards its employees, such as a duty of care, salary or social insurance payments. Uber reasons that their drivers are in fact not their employees.
The company has on the same grounds been trying to fend off any perceived attributions that it is somehow responsible for the actions of its drivers, including accusations of rape and a shooting in 2016 that left six people dead and wounded scores of others. In relation to these incidents, the company has highlighted its extensive background checks, suggesting that their internal procedures are in order and that they could not have foreseen the actions of particular individual citizens. With the rape allegations, the company directly responded to media reports and reported that the five official rape allegations it has received between December 2012 and August 2015 represented only “0.0000009% of customer journeys in the period covered” with “legitimate” sexual assault claims accounting for one in every 3.3m trips. The company in this manner obviously tries to deny, clarify and downplay any accusations of wrongdoing by its drivers, who again as the company stresses are in fact not its drivers (or Uber employees), but citizens using their app.
But again, returning to the verdict of the employment tribunal, the judges wrote: “We are satisfied that the supposed driver/passenger contract is a pure fiction which bears no relation to the real dealings and relationships between the parties. It is not real to regard Uber as working ‘for’ the drivers … the only sensible interpretation is that the relationship is the other way around”. In other words, Uber cannot have its cake and eat it, effectively profiting from its taxi operations without any duty of care towards its employees or the customers who use the services. The “fiction” that the judges point to is instructive; what is at stake is that we need to roll back on the language and imagery that we use when we discuss companies like Uber and become more real.
Specifically, the neutral metaphors (networks, media companies, platforms) that are currently in swing are somewhat one-sided portrayals and do not speak clearly to the power and impact companies such as Uber have on society, let alone what real responsibilities they have in transactions and relationships with their stakeholders, including customers and employees. Just as the progressive movement in general is in need of new labels and images, those working in business schools similarly have to explore and discuss alternative framings of Uber and companies like Uber, as a way of bringing other aspects and other assumptions back into the classroom. Academics, like everyone else, have been lulled into the neutral language of platforms, business models and profits, and to break out of this mould we have to press ourselves to embrace a different vocabulary, one that is more progressively centered around human and society concepts such as consumer protection, worker welfare, and public and legal accountability. Having such a language will at the very least help provoke new and alternative interpretations of cases such as Uber in a business school setting. Alternative framings may not provide any definite or immediate answers or any ‘final’ interpretations, but they would bring more balance to the discussion. A new, more real, language might also prompt a new generation of business students to use technology and organisations towards other, more socially progressive ends, and to gain a heightened sense of reality about the actual impacts a business has on society.
Joep is a professor in corporate communication and management at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and the author of Corporate Communication: A Guide to Theory and Practice (5th edition, 2017).