Suicide at Uber: Is this Tantamount to Murder or Manslaughter?

Before he went to work for Uber, Joseph Thomas was described as “the smartest guy in the room,” a hard-driving and ambitious engineer with a warm heart who gave up a job at Apple to work for Uber. But according to the San Francisco Chronicle, after he started working at the ride-share company, he began to change.

His family told reporter Carolyn Said that he began to struggle for the first time. He was working long hours under acute stress and frightened he’d lose his job. Then the panic attacks began, along with constant anxiety and lack of mental focus. Visits to a psychiatrist didn’t help, nor did pleas that he quit Uber. His wife reported that his personality changed and he kept insisting that he couldn’t do anything right. Thomas was one of the less than 1 percent of African-American managers at the company and given previous reports of bullying and harassment, it is very likely that racism played a role in his decline.

In August 2016 Joseph Thomas took his own life. He left behind a wife and two young sons who are being denied a worker’s compensation claim because he had only worked for the company for five months. His wife is looking to hold Uber accountable for Joseph’s mental decline. “If you put a hard-driving person on unrealistic tasks, it puts them in failure mode. It makes them burn themselves out; like driving a Lamborghini in first gear,” Thomas’ father told the Chronicle.

I’ve written a lot about suicide brought on by bullying at work, and given the 120,000 annual deaths attributable to workplace stress according to a joint study at Harvard Business School, it’s not a surprise that not enough is being done to address the cause of this terrible epidemic. I devoted an entire section of my book, From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire to preventing this sort of tragedy. The Faas Foundation has been working to address the issue of mental health in the workplace with Mental Health America with the same goal.

It is eminently clear that the toxic workplace culture at Uber is having a horrendous impact on its people. In February I wrote about how a former female employee of Uber was driven out by sexual harassment that human resources did nothing to stop. It’s gotten so bad that two of the company’s original investors penned an open letter to the board about the egregious culture of the place.

If it is found that the toxic environment was the main factor in Thomas’ suicide, Uber must be held accountable for what is tantamount to murder—or at least manslaughter.  

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