Uber, Nudge and Gig

At a recent Health and Safety event I used the rise of the Gig’ Economy and Fake News’ as a back-drop for linking the two presentations that I gave. These were on (a) Applying Nudge’ to Health and Safety and (b) Organisational Approaches to Stress Prevention. It so happens that since then, the headline news that the Transport for London (TfL) is potentially not renewing its current contract with Uber, has inadvertently knitted together the themes of nudge’ and gig’. Uber is widely regarded as a typical example of a gig economy business, it that it uses an app-based platform to allocate gigs, or pieces of work, to drivers. These drivers are treated as contractors. Accordingly, Uber pays drivers for each piece of work completed (1). However, to offset the reduced control that a client has over a contractor relative to that which an employer has over an employee, it would seem that Uber has used nudge thinking to keep its contracted drivers available and at-hand (2). This apparently has included, for example, drawing on earning goals’ to alert drivers that they are ever-so-close to hitting their target at the moment they are about to log-off, sending messages about next fare opportunity before the current is ride is done, and working on loss-aversion’ to let drivers know how much they could loose financially by not moving their availability to a busier time. Even though Uber appear to be arguing within the current appeal process that drivers are free-to-go at any time (3), it would seem that their contractor-drivers are being nudged to stay available for Uber’s business.

The recent news headlines claim that TfL’s reasons for ending their contract with Uber were due to reasons surrounding lack of corporate social responsibility’ in relation to the reporting of serious criminal offences,‘obtaining medical certificates’ and driver background checks.’ Transport for London also appear to have considered Uber’s use of Greyball’ software to block regulatory bodies from accessing Uber’s platform, as further reason for not considering Uber a fit and proper’ private car hire operator. While TfL has since offered Uber an olive branch (4), and while the decision is also currently being reviewed by an Employment Appeals Tribunal hearing, there are nonetheless two morality tales from this story.

First, it reminds us to be cautious about using nudges where they are not clearly in the recipient’s best interest. In the case of Uber, contractor-drivers appear to have been nudged to provide Uber more control over their availability. Drivers therefore seemingly felt compelled to hang-on for work that might or might not come in. In the case of safety, appropriately nudging a worker to be safer can only always be in the worker’s best interest; but we should still think through their potential knock-on-effects when designing them.

Second, it potently demonstrates how failure to show due consideration in respecting regulatory requirements as well as public and workforce welfare, even where the latter are contracted, can pose a serious reputation risk that is bad for business.

  1. Kobie, N. (2017) What is the gig economy and why is it so controversial, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/what-is-the-gig-economy-meaning-definition-why-is-it-called-gig-economy
  2. Scheiber,N.(2017) How uber uses psychological tricks to push its drivers buttons https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/04/02/technology/uber-drivers-psychological-tricks.html
  3. BBC News. Uber is not part of the gig economy, firm argues. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-41400745 (27/09/2017)
  4. Pratley, N. (2017) Uber faces serious charges – why is Khan offering an olive branch? https://www.theguardian.com/technology/nils-pratley-on-finance/2017/sep/25/uber-faces-serious-charges-why-is-khan-offering-an-olive-branch (25/09/2017)

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