Wednesday, January 3, 2018
At a time when many boards may be thinking of tax planning and possible M & A deals, they may have to start focusing more on the unseemly topic of their executives' sex lives because the flood of terminations and resignations due to sexual misconduct shows no signs of slowing down. One of the most shocking but underreported terminations in 2017 related to VISA. The CEO, one year into the role, chose to terminate one of his most valuable executives after an anonymous tip about sexual misconduct. He wanted his employees to know that the corporate culture and values mattered. Board members should look closely at the VISA example.
We will continue to see the rise of the #MeToo movement spurred on in part by the messaging from a star-studded task force formed to address Hollywood issues and the establishment of a multimillion-dollar legal defense fund to help blue-collar workers. Even Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts addressed sexual harassment in the court system in his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. More people than ever may now choose to come forward with claims of harassment or assault. Whether companies choose to terminate wrongdoers or the accused choose to resign "to spend more time with their families," it's a new day. As I've written here, companies will need to re-evaluate policies and training to navigate these landmines.
Board members will need to step up too. Boards of any size institution (including nonprofits) need to take the job of CEO succession planning seriously because the chief executive could leave, retire, or die. Boards must not only consider the possibility of a harassment scandal in the C-Suite but they must also worry about their fellow board members. Unfortunately, a KPMG study revealed that only 14% of board members believe they have a detailed succession plan for themselves. Members of the C-suite will also need to think more clearly about succession planning in the lower ranks. HR may have to redouble efforts to ensure that high-potential employees have no skeletons in the closet that have been swept under the rug.
In the meantime, I and other former members of the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee have written an op-ed in the Boston Globe. Even if I had not co-authored the piece, as a former defense-side employment lawyer and compliance officer, I would recommend that company leaders take a look at it. Some of our recommendations for strengthening corporate culture are below:
1) have a trustworthy, independent system, with multiple reporting mechanisms, staffed with the proper skills to conduct swift, full, and fair investigations and to carry them to a just resolution, observing principles of confidentiality and discretion, and including ongoing protection of those who report;
2) make sure that there is a clear, credible anti-retaliation policy that protects accusers and witnesses who come forward in good faith;
3) require strong accountability for all levels of management for reporting and responding to complaints;
4) implement specific policies that direct bonuses, raises, and other incentives and opportunities to those who, in addition to meeting business targets, actively prevent and respond appropriately to harassment, retaliation, and other compliance problems. Consider clawbacks if unsupportive behavior later comes to light. Call out injurious behavior (without necessarily naming names) and credit exemplary behaviors;
5) periodically assess the culture and require an independent outside entity to confidentially administer anonymous surveys and interviews. The best of these use benchmarked and validated questions that can provide insight into the effectiveness of the compliance program and whether employees trust the system; and
6) make sure to involve unions and other formal and informal employee groups in developing new policies.
I wish all of our readers a happy and healthy new year. I wish board members and company executives good luck.