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.”