The executive hosted sessions about race and being a white woman that were titled “Don’t Call Me Karen,” prompting an employee uproar.
Uber has placed its longtime head of diversity, equity and inclusion on leave after workers complained that an employee event she moderated, titled “Don’t Call Me Karen,” was insensitive to people of color.
Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, and Nikki Krishnamurthy, the chief people officer, last week asked Bo Young Lee, the head of diversity, “to step back and take a leave of absence while we determine next steps,” according to an email on Thursday from Ms. Krishnamurthy to some employees that was viewed by The New York Times.
“We have heard that many of you are in pain and upset by yesterday’s Moving Forward session,” the email said. “While it was meant to be a dialogue, it’s obvious that those who attended did not feel heard.”
Employees’ concerns centered on a pair of events, one last month and another last Wednesday, that were billed as “diving into the spectrum of the American white woman’s experience” and hearing from white women who work at Uber, with a focus on “the ‘Karen’ persona.” They were intended to be an “open and honest conversation about race,” according to the invitation.
But workers instead felt that they were being lectured on the difficulties experienced by white women and why “Karen” was a derogatory term and that Ms. Lee was dismissive of their concerns, according to messages sent on Slack, a workplace messaging tool, that were viewed by The Times.
The term Karen has become slang for a white woman with a sense of entitlement who often complains to a manager and reports Black people and other racial minorities to the authorities. Employees felt the event organizers were minimizing racism and the harm white people can inflict on people of color by focusing on how “Karen” is a hurtful word, according to the messages and an employee who attended the events. A prominent “Karen” incident occurred in 2020, when Amy Cooper, a white woman, called 911 after a Black man bird-watching in New York’s Central Park asked her to leash her dog.
The concerns raised about the events underscored the difficulties that companies face as they navigate subjects of race and identity that have become increasingly hot-button issues in Silicon Valley and beyond. Cultural clashes over race and L.G.B.T.Q. rights have been thrust to the forefront of workplaces in recent years, including the renewed attention to discrimination in company hiring practices and the feud between Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Disney over a state law that limits classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation.
At Uber, the incident was also a rare case of employee dissent under Mr. Khosrowshahi, who has shepherded the company away from the aggressive, chaotic culture that pervaded under the former chief executive, Travis Kalanick. Mr. Khosrowshahi’s efforts included increased diversity initiatives under Ms. Lee, who has led the effort since 2018. Before joining Uber, she held similar roles at the financial services firm Marsh McLennan and other companies, according to her LinkedIn profile.
“I can confirm that Bo is currently on a leave of absence,” Noah Edwardsen, an Uber spokesman, said in a statement. Ms. Lee did not respond to a request for comment.
The first of the two Don’t Call Me Karen events, in April, was part of a series called Moving Forward — discussions about race and the experiences of underrepresented groups that sprung up in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
Several weeks after that first event, a Black woman asked during an Uber all-hands meeting how the company would prevent “tone-deaf, offensive and triggering conversations” from becoming a part of its diversity initiatives.
Ms. Lee fielded the question, arguing that the Moving Forward series was aimed at having tough conversations and not intended to be comfortable.
“Sometimes being pushed out of your own strategic ignorance is the right thing to do,” she said, according to notes taken by an employee who attended the event. The comment prompted more employee outrage and complaints to executives, according to the Slack messages and the employee.
The second of the two events, run by Ms. Lee, was intended to be a dialogue where workers discussed what they had heard in the earlier meeting.
But in Slack groups for Black and Hispanic employees at Uber, workers fumed that instead of a chance to provide feedback or have a dialogue, they were instead being lectured about their response to the initial Don’t Call Me Karen event.
“I felt like I was being scolded for the entirety of that meeting,” one employee wrote.
Another employee took issue with the premise that the term Karen shouldn’t be used.
“I think when people are called Karens it’s implied that this is someone that has little empathy to others or is bothered by minorities others that don’t look like them. Like why can’t bad behavior not be called out?” she wrote.
Employees greeted the news that Ms. Lee was stepping away as a sign that Uber’s leadership was taking their complaints seriously.
One employee wrote that the company’s executives “have heard us, they know we are hurting, and they want to understand what all happened too.”