By Melissa Arnoff, Senior Vice President, and Megan Black, Fellow, LEVICK
When confessed Kalamazoo shooter Jason Dalton was connected to the murder of six people and identified as an Uber driver, the company had two choices: defend how it vets drivers or show sympathy for victims and not make the conversation about Uber. The company’s statement and tweet focused on the violence of the incident saying, “We are horrified and heartbroken at the senseless violence in Kalamazoo.” The statement also informed the community that Uber contacted police in offering to help with the investigation. These actions showed the company did not condone the violence and empathized with the victims without explicitly linking the company with the driver’s actions.
Realistically, it was impossible for Uber to remain disconnected from the issue because the media coverage primarily identified Dalton as an Uber driver. The lack of any other personal details about Dalton meant that he was almost exclusively described as an Uber driver, forcing the company into all of the stories.
While Uber should absolutely look at its driver screening policies in the wake of this development to see if there are vulnerabilities—and if there are changes it could make to improve—chances are that nothing in Uber’s internal systems could have prevented these horrible tragedies. That is why the company should try to stay out of the discussion as much as possible, from both a company and political policy standpoint. Uber should not use this opportunity to take a stance on divisive issues such as gun control or mental health. Providing an opinion on these matters can only negatively impact the brand’s relatability for both consumers and employees because views on these issues are so personally and strongly held and because Uber has no expertise or business focus on these areas. No viewpoint could ever represent the multitude of views held by all Uber users or drivers. There are plenty of individuals and organizations who can advance those topics.
Is it fair to ask if Uber could have done anything to prevent this tragedy? The company conducts background checks to look into potential drivers’ pasts and has a rider complaint system to monitor drivers’ current behavior. But Dalton did not have a criminal record and had positive reviews from customers, so there would have been no sign to Uber that he was dangerous. Although the company received complaints about Dalton that night, customers complained about bad driving, not violence. Uber’s policy is to speak with the driver before taking action for bad driving allegations, so it did not react immediately that night. Nothing that has been made public suggests that before that terrible night Dalton was threatening or unstable as a driver.
By aggressively defending its background checks, Uber would suggest that there was a failure in its procedures. It would also make Uber sound as if it were claiming some responsibility for this incident, an action that would make the company more culpable if another Uber driver is connected to a violent tragedy. The truth is, this seems to have been a random, unpredictable – and thus unpreventable – act.
Any large company with franchisees and independent contractors faces an issue with control over a huge workforce. And these types of companies should be worried about what has happened to Uber. If a McDonald’s employee left work on break, shot six people, and then returned to work, would McDonald’s face the same scrutiny as Uber? Although the prior situation mirrors Uber’s current problem, it seems unlikely that McDonald’s would be held to the same standard as Uber. None of Dalton’s victims were Uber customers. Nothing about his role with Uber increased his access to victims or firearms. It seems that Uber has been unfairly connected to this particular crime.
While some people may feel that Uber has not done enough, Uber made the right decision by showing care and concern for the victims and their families, and by not suggesting there was any way the company could have predicted or prevented Dalton’s actions. Other large companies would do well to follow Uber’s example of trying to stay out of a story they cannot control.