Saturday, February 3, 2018
Time's Up for Board Members: Sexual Misconduct Allegations Against CEOs of Wynn and the Humane Society Should Send a Message
Perhaps I'm a cynic, but I have to admit that I was stunned when the news of hotelier Steve Wynn's harassment allegations at the end of January caused a double-digit drop in stock price. What began as an unseemly story of a $7.5 million settlement to a manicurist at one his of his resorts later morphed into a story about his resignation as head of the finance chair of the Republican National Committee. Not only did he lose that job, he also lost at least $412 million (the company at one point lost over $3 billion in value). His actions have also led regulators in two states to scrutinize his business dealings and settlements to determine whether he has violated "suitability standards." Nonetheless, Wynn has asked his 25,000 employees to stand by him and think of him as their father. The question is, will the board stand by him as it faces potential liability for breach of fiduciary duty?
The Wynn board members should take a close look at what happened with the Humane Society yesterday. That board chose to retain the CEO after ending an investigation into harassment allegations. A swift backlash ensued. Major donors threatened to pull funding, causing the CEO to resign. A number of board members also reportedly resigned. However, not all of the board members resigned out of principle. One female director resigned after stating, " Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody? ... [w]omen should be able to take care of themselves.” Unfortunately, the reaction of this board member did not surprise me. She's in her 80s and in my twenty years practicing employment law on the defense side, I've heard similar sentiments from many (but not all) men and women of that generation. Indeed, French actress Catherine Deneuve initially joined other women in denouncing the #MeToo movement before bowing to public pressure to apologize. We have five generations of people in the workplace now, and as I have explained here, companies need to reexamine the boundaries. What may seem harmless or "normal" for some may be traumatic or legally actionable to someone else.
As the Wynn and the Humane Society situations illustrate, the sexual harassment issue is now front and center for boards so general counsels need to put the issue on the next board agenda. As I wrote here, boards must scrutinize current executives as well as those they are reviewing as part of their succession planning roles to ensure that the executives have not committed inappropriate conduct. Because definitions differ, companies must clarify the gray areas and ensure everyone knows what's acceptable and what's terminable (even if it's not per se illegal).This means having the head of human resources report to the board that company policies and training don't just check a box. In fact, board members need to ask about the effectiveness of policies and training in the same way that they ask about training on bribery, money laundering, and other highly regulated compliance areas. Boards as part of their oversight obligation must also ensure that there are no uninvestigated allegations against senior executives. Prudent companies will review the adequacy of investigations into misconduct that were closed prematurely or without corroboration.Companies must spend the time and the money with qualified, credible legal counsel to investigate claims that they may not have taken seriously in the past. Because the #MeToo movement shows no signs of abating, boards need to engage in these uncomfortable, messy conversations. If they don't, regulators, plaintiffs' counsel, and shareholders will make sure that they do.