Friday, March 15, 2019
Hundreds of men have resigned or been terminated after allegations of sexual misconduct or assault. Just last week, celebrity chef/former TV star Mario Batali and the founder of British retailer Ted Baker were forced to sell their interests or step down from their own companies. Plaintiffs lawyers have now found a new cause of action. Although there a hurdles to success, shareholders file derivative suits when these kinds of allegations become public claiming breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, or corporate waste among other things. Examples of alleged corporate governance missteps in the filings include: failure to establish and implement appropriate controls to prevent the misconduct; failure to appropriately monitor the business; allowing known or suspected wrongdoing to persist; settling lawsuits but not changing the corporate culture or terminating wrongdoers; and paying large severance packages to the accused. Google, for example, announced earlier this year that it had terminated 48 people with no severance for sexual misconduct, but until it became public, the company did not disclose a $90 million payment to a former executive, who had allegedly coerced sex from an employee. Earlier this week, Google acknowledged another $35 million payment to a search executive who had been accused of sexual assault. This second payment was revealed after lawyers filed a shareholder derivative suit in January. CBS, on the other hand, denied a $120 million severance package to its former head, Les Moonvies, who has demanded arbitration.
So what happens when a company knows that a prominent executive has engaged in misconduct? How does a company prevent the conduct and then react to it? Board members and rank and file employees are undergoing more training even as people talk of a #MeToo backlash. But is that enough? Should companies now discuss potential or alleged sexual harassment by executives as a material risk factor in SEC filings? One panelist speaking at the 37th Annual Federal Securities Institute last month suggested that board counsel needed to consider this as an option.
#MeToo has also affected M&A deals with over a dozen companies now inserting a "Weinstein clause" representing, for example that “To the knowledge of the company, no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any current or former executive officer of the company or any of its subsidiaries” Other "#MeToo reps" require a target company to confirm that it “has not entered into any settlement agreements” with perpetrators of sexual misconduct. Clawbacks are also increasingly common both in M & A deals and executive compensation agreements. Some companies have even asked newly-hired executives to represent that they have not been accused of or engaged in sexual misconduct.
I expect these #MeToo reps, clawbacks, and other disclosures to become more mainstream for a few reasons. First, there's a steady stream of news keeping these issues in the headlines, and many states have banned or are considering banning nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases. Second, women leaders may now play a larger role in changing corporate culture. California requires that publicly held corporations whose “principal executive office” is located in California include at least one female board member by 2019 and even more depending on the size of the board. See here for some perspective on whether more female board members would lead to fewer sexual harassment scandals. Third, proxy advisory firms sounded the alarm on #MeToo in early 2018 and both ISS and Glass Lewis have issued statements about what they plan to recommend when there are no women on boards. Finally, BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager has made it clear that it expects to see women on boards. Some people do not agree that these guidelines/laws will work or are even necessary. Indeed, it will take a few years for empirical evidence to reveal whether having more women on boards and in the C suite will make a meaningful difference.
Personally, I believe it will take a combination of new leadership, successful shareholder derivative suits, and a continuation of the social due diligence in the hiring and M & A context. Sexual misconduct is wrong but it's also expensive. Companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes more to investigate claims and prepare reports that they know will likely be made public at some time. Conduct won't change unless there are real financial and social penalties for wrongdoers.