The Humane Society’s Silence On CEO’s Alleged Sexual Harassment
The Humane Society of the United States — an animal welfare group known for its advocacy against factory farming, puppy mills, and the fur trade — almost certainly has a donor and employee base particularly attuned to the #MeToo movement.
So when Wayne Pacelle, the organization’s president and CEO, was accused of several allegations of sexual misconduct, it presented an especially difficult challenge for the group.
Yesterday, the Humane Society’s board voted to keep Pacelle. Seven board members quit immediately in protest. What was a significant reputational risk yesterday has just become a major crisis.
And just as news headlines are sharing the Humane Society’s sure-to-be unpopular decision with millions of people, the group has thus far failed to comment publicly on it.
First, here are the allegations themselves, as described by The Washington Post:
“An internal investigation by a law firm hired by the Humane Society of the United States has identified three complaints of sexual harassment by chief executive Wayne Pacelle and found that senior female leaders said their warnings about his conduct went unheeded, according to two people familiar with the matter and a Humane Society memo describing the investigation.
The investigation also found the nonprofit agency, one of the country’s biggest animal charities, had offered settlements to three other workers who said they were demoted or dismissed after reporting Pacelle’s alleged behavior.”
Those accusations seem as credible as any of the others that felled public figures like Mark Halperin, Louis C.K., and Matt Lauer. In analyzing the board’s decision, there are essentially only two possibilities (from their perspective):
1. Pacelle is innocent and is the victim of several women — two of whom have publicly identified themselves — who opted to invent false stories to smear him.
2. Pacelle did at least some things wrong — but whatever they were, the board considered them to be minor-enough infractions to retain him as president and CEO. They may have also concluded that firing him would present longer-term threats to the organization than keeping him.
Based on the available facts — including the resignations of seven board members who were privy to more information — and my own experience with boards making difficult decisions, I suspect that number two is a far more likely scenario. Either way, it seems obvious that the Humane Society will have to explain its decision and share the relevant facts of its investigation with its employees, donors, partners and supporters — before opinions harden.
But as of 9:50 a.m. eastern today, they haven’t said a word.
The group’s online newsroom has an earlier bland statement from the board president that amounted to a “no comment” during its investigatory phase — but nothing about its decision to keep Pacelle.
Their Twitter feed also avoids the topic.
And while the group did engage on Facebook, they did so before the board’s decision — and in a thread that had nothing to do with the accusations.
The Humane Society remained consistent in its post-decision silence in the press, too. According to The Washington Post:
“None of the board members contacted by The Washington Post responded to requests for comment. The Humane Society, one of the country’s largest animal charities, also did not respond to requests for comment.”
Even if the group issued a statement right now, they would be doing so from a defensive position that surrendered the opportunity to help establish the context from the moment the decision was made final.
Given that the first news cycle looks so damning, they will have a much-steeper hill to climb to gain back its reputation. I have my doubts that Mr. Pacelle can remain in his position for long; this seems like the type of decision that will be lambasted, in hindsight, by future Humane Society boards.
Either way, their supporters — the exact people most likely to be upset by these types of allegations — will demand more, and should.
UPDATE: February 2, 2018, 6:00 p.m.: Mr. Pacelle announced his resignation from The Humane Society. Unfortunately for the group, his resignation came only after the board voted to keep him, neutering any PR benefit they would have gotten from ousting him more proactively. I suspect the board will soon have significant turnover as well, starting with the board member who defiantly declared, “We’re not an organization that investigates sexual harrassment.”
A reader emailed me and asked: “Thank you for the analysis. What exactly do you mean by this, and what in our opinion should the HS have done?”
“Even if the group issued a statement right now, they would be doing so from a defensive position that surrendered the opportunity to help establish the context from the moment the decision was made final.”
I responded by saying:
“The board president could have immediately issued a statement upon reaching the decision to retain Mr. Pacelle, explaining the reasons why they voted to do so. That statement would have provided some context about why the board made their decision—and also could have reaffirmed the seriousness with which they take the allegations and the processes they put in place to investigate them. Instead, they said nothing once they reached their decision…at least not yet.”
Agree this was very badly handled. In contrast, I received an email to alumni yesterday from the chair and president of the University of Pennsylvania stating that in light of accusations against Steve Wynne, they were removing him from their board, taking his name off a scholarship and removing his name from a campus venue (a project of my former architecture firm) and stripping him and, at the same time Bill Cosby, of any honorary degrees or other honorific titles that had been bestowed on them. They did not indicate they would return any money. This seemed like the right way to handle this for an organization that models appropriate behavior for students. And, they can count on my continued support in donating funds, hosting student and alumni tours and in mentoring two of its graduates at work.
Thanks for your comment and for reading the post!
When I got the original push alert about the allegations and told my wife about them, she almost did a spit take: “The HUMANE Society?!?” Precisely because this is such a direct threat to their brand of caring for and protecting the vulnerable, they needed to handle this swiftly and communicate the rationale behind their decision. That they’ve failed to do so will likely have effects for years to come. It reminds me of when Susan G. Komen stopped funding Planned Parenthood, which caused an immediate drop in their support.
Great article and a good reminder for us all.
Based on your disclosure note I did want to let you know that HSUS is probably not affiliated with your local shelter. They give a very small portion of their money to shelters – most of the donations are actually spent on lobbying. Most people assume HSUS is connected to local shelters but that is not the case.
Thank you for your note. Thanks, too, for your note about my disclosure note. After reading your message, I looked it up — you’re right — we adopted our cat from ASPCA, not the Humane Society. Scary what the mind can forget after nine years! As such, I removed that disclaimer. 🙂
Hi Brad Phillips,
Your article is really helpful for me! Become a CEO never easy.
I think it is great that you have moved back into analysing current media fails, flops and follies.
Within Australia, there was a recent case that you may have observed concerning Mr Tim Worner, (CEO Seven West Media) and his affair with a subordinate, Ms Amber Harrison ( a simple Google search will reveal all). I think a majority of people in Australia were amazed he actually retained his position (I can only conclude he was a fierce cash-cow/rain maker for the company). To make matters (appear) worse, he then went on to announce major job cuts within the organisation. Many social media commentators were flabbergasted that employees within the company that had “kept it in their pants” and had done nothing wrong, were getting the axe from someone who had committed a serious (read HR nightmare) faux pas.
Granted Seven West Media is no “Humane Society”, however, in this day and age, the mind boggles as to how he retained his position. There are many theories but that is perhaps an idea for another article.
Keep up the great work and thanks.