When Susan Fowler rocked Uber’s world with a meticulous account of the company’s sexual harassment and gender discrimination issues, the ride-sharing service turned to its only female board member to help clean up its culture (and its image). Arianna Huffington was perfectly poised to position herself as the feminist savior who would advocate for Uber’s women—she oversaw the subsequent Eric Holder investigation, and promised that “no brilliant jerks will be allowed, and no one will be protected because they are top performers.” But being a powerful woman with a stake in a company, and its profits, doesn’t mean Huffington was actually the best choice to champion women struggling to make their voices heard.
Huffington’s well-documented history of fostering a toxic work culture, and failing to address inappropriate behavior from a “brilliant jerk” in her own midst, calls into question the sincerity behind her pledge to help bring positive change to Uber’s culture. Most notably, her history with a former managing editor whose “transfer” to launch HuffPost India was later revealed to be result of an HR investigation into whether he had sexually harassed multiple young women in the New York office. Gizmodo recently revisited those allegations and not only independently confirmed that the investigation was indeed the reason for that managing editor’s transfer, but that Huffington knew about his actions before they were reported to HR, according to a former employee with direct knowledge of the investigation.
Huffington’s past bears revisiting not only because of her role at Uber, but also because of the recent wave of allegations about inappropriate workplace behavior. It is important to note that oftentimes, harassers in positions of power can continue to engage in sexual misconduct without consequence due to the complicity of those in their professional sphere. And that includes women. Harvey Weinstein, for instance, had women in his inner circle that enabled his behavior. But in those cases, these women were hindered by the disproportionate power dynamics, keeping the secret of their superior at the risk of losing their job or jeopardizing their career.
But you can’t make the argument that Huffington’s job security was imperiled. She was at the top. By turning a blind eye, she bore ultimate responsibility for any issues that arose under her leadership. While she may proclaim herself a feminist, her failure to foster a safe work environment for women junior to her makes that proclamation empty and seemingly simply a tool to further her brand and her career. There is baffling hypocrisy in asserting that a healthy work environment is crucial when you have willfully ignored a toxic culture that thrived under your leadership. Huffington had the power to set an example—but she didn’t.
In May of 2014, Huffington sent a laudatory memo to her then staff at the Huffington Post about the promotion of one of her most trusted lieutenants Jimmy Soni, the then-managing editor at the Huffington Post and widely seen as her favorite among the editorial leadership team. Huffington announced to her employees that Soni would be leaving to launch HuffPost India in New Delhi, a surprising move since he had been promoted to managing editor in January 2012 with no direct background in editorial and after serving as Huffington’s chief of staff for just nine months.
Not publicly known at that time was why Soni was suddenly being sent abroad and away from the newsroom. A few months later Gawker revealed that the transfer was likely the result of an HR investigation into whether Soni was sexually harassing young women while he oversaw the newsroom.
Given Huffington’s new role as Uber’s toxic culture clean-up consultant, Gizmodo spoke with nine Huffington Post employees, current and former, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because they continue to work in media and fear retaliation from Huffington. A former employee with direct knowledge of the investigation not only independently confirmed that the investigation was indeed the reason for Soni’s transfer, but that Huffington “100 percent knew” about Soni’s actions before they were reported to HR. Another employee in a senior leadership role at that time also confirmed Huffington’s direct knowledge of Soni’s harassing behavior before she sent out the memo, in which Huffington called it a “dream of Jimmy’s, as both his parents were born and raised there.” Huffington also noted in the memo that it was great for the company that Soni would be the one spearheading such a significant launch.
Gizmodo has also independently confirmed just what Huffington would likely have known regarding Soni’s reputation in the newsroom and the ensuing allegations against him. Soni selected the individuals for HuffPost’s Editorial Fellows program, and reportedly saw this program as a way to find a romantic partner. According to Gawker, when an editor reportedly pointed out to Soni that the group of fellows was predominantly white, blonde women, Soni reportedly responded in a semi-joking manner, “Yeah, I’m using it to find myself a wife.”
One former staffer said that on one or two occasions while Soni was managing editor, he tried to kiss or make-out with her. She also added that when Soni took over as managing editor, “shit hit the fan,” and that he created a toxic work environment, enforcing unrealistic goals and working everyone tirelessly. “Allies became enemies, enemies became allies. It was a mess.” She described Huffington as someone who may value portraying herself as a feminist, but ultimately prioritizes a ruthless work ethic over issues of sexual harassment, or what she believed Huffington viewed as “the softer side of things.” She added that Huffington “thinks those things can be swept under the rug, but earnings can’t be,” noting that “everything for her is about the optics.” In response to Huffington’s recent Uber tour, she called Huffington “a major hypocrite.”
Another woman, a fellow at the time, said that Soni was making her uncomfortable based on how he interacted with her over Facebook messages after hours. She noted the disproportionate power dynamic, given Soni was in part responsible for determining who among the fellows would be hired full time. Her Huffington Post fellowship was her first job out of college, and she remembers feeling confused as to why the editor of the entire newsroom was sending her flirty messages. She said that he was allegedly communicating with a number of other fellows in the same manner he was with her, and had also done so in the past. Another former Huffington Post employee, who was an 18-year-old intern at the time, confirmed that she had an ongoing consensual sexual relationship with Soni, who was not only her superior but, as managing editor, a member of Huffington’s senior leadership team.
The woman who received unwanted advances over Facebook messenger was made so uncomfortable—the messages had increased in frequency and evolved to requests that she go out for drinks with Soni at a time when a big hiring decision was coming up—that she told a higher-up individual within the company in April or May of 2014 of Soni’s behavior; that higher-up then reported the issue to HR. The woman told Gizmodo that she was contacted “maybe less than a week later” by the legal team at Huffington Post.
The source with knowledge of the investigation said that Huffington didn’t want to deal with Soni’s behavior, so she left it to HR. “She didn’t handle it in a good way,” they said, adding that “HR protected Arianna and the company more than the employees.”
The woman who reported Soni to a higher-up said that she was happy with Soni’s swift departure from the New York newsroom, because at the time she expected that no action would be taken. She did, however, find the India announcement odd. She said that Huffington never sat down with any of the fellows or apologized for what happened with Soni. “Do I think she is a truly feminist advocate? No. By no means.” Numerous anonymous sources said that, internally, the announcement was widely considered to be a PR strategy to move Soni out of his position in light of the allegations. Four former Huffington Post employees said they were skeptical about the memo’s explanation and Soni’s sudden departure from the newsroom.
Huffington’s knowledge of the investigation into Soni, together with an absence of recognition of the issues internally or externally, cast doubt on her commitment to advocate on behalf of women. A Huffington Post employee who was an editor at the time said that Huffington was “very protective of those who were in her inner lair,” adding that “I don’t doubt for a fraction of a second that she would protect them whether it’s for sexual misconduct or professional misdealings.”
The investigation into Soni was fairly widely reported at the time, and yet, to this day, Huffington hasn’t acknowledged that she allowed a toxic work culture to thrive beneath her. Not only that, but she sent him off in a flattering manner while failing to address the women who had issued complaints. It is this type of behavior—rewarding high performers and ignoring victims—that Huffington is vowing to eradicate from Uber’s work culture.
Fowler recently cast suspicion on Huffington’s ability to champion for women at the company. She told the New York Times in October that she was “disappointed” in Huffington “because I expected her to be an advocate,” referencing Huffington’s March 2017 CNN appearance in which she said that sexual harassment wasn’t a systemic issue at the company. It appears Fowler’s suspicions of Huffington’s sincerity were well founded.
Huffington declined to comment on the record and Soni could not be reached for comment.
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