Workplace sexual harassment and related misconduct—a toxic boys’-club atmosphere—led to three recent cases against McDonald’s, its management and board. And studies have shown that workplace sexual harassment can have substantial adverse “psychological, health, and job-related consequences” for employees, often resulting in “higher employee turnover, lower employee productivity, increased absenteeism, and increased sick leave costs.” But what is the impact for shareholders? A study in the Journal of Business Ethics, “How Much Does Workplace Sexual Harassment Hurt Firm Value?”, looked at just this question. Earlier studies of the impact of workplace sexual harassment looked at the short-term impact on the market, but this study analyzed the “longer-term effect on firm value starting from the date when harassment risk affects employee morale.” The study found that sexual harassment led to much greater damage—manifested in significant reductions in stock performance and profitability—than previously realized: the stock prices of the group of companies with the highest levels of pervasive harassment underperformed those of an equivalent group with low levels of harassment by about 17%. The study also showed that these “high-SH” companies experienced a decline in operating profitability and an increase in labor costs. One of the paper’s co-authors told Corporate Secretary, “[f]inancial analysts and investors often undervalue intangibles such as the effect of a toxic work environment…But [workplace safety] is indicative of all sorts of other underlying issues, including poor control systems and overall bad governance, which can directly impact employee performance, company performance and stock market value.”
Here we have another in a string of McDonald’s cases—all of them arising out of workplace misconduct at McDonald’s, none even dipping its toe into employment law. First, you’ll remember, there were settled charges brought by the SEC against McDonald’s and its former CEO, Stephen Easterbrook, arising out of disclosure about the termination of Easterbrook on account of workplace misconduct. Then there was the derivative Caremark litigation for breach of fiduciary duty against David Fairhurst, who formerly served as Executive Vice President and Global Chief People Officer of McDonald’s, for consciously ignoring red flags about workplace misconduct and engaging in some pretty extensive workplace misconduct himself. Now, we have a new decision out of Delaware regarding the derivative Caremark litigation against the company’s directors alleging that they ignored red flags about the company’s culture that condoned workplace misconduct. But this case turned out to be different—VC Laster of the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed the complaint against the directors. The Court held that, in this case, the directors did not ignore the numerous red flags: the facts cited in the pleadings did “not support a reasonably conceivable claim against them for breach of the duty of oversight.” Once again, the case reinforces that high bar described by former Chief Justice Leo Strine for Caremark claims: “Caremark claims are difficult to plead and ultimately to prove out,” and constitute “possibly the most difficult theory in corporation law upon which a plaintiff might hope to win a judgment.” (See this PubCo post.)
In In re McDonald’s Corporation, defendant David Fairhurst, who formerly served as Executive Vice President and Global Chief People Officer of McDonald’s Corporation, contested a stockholders’ claim that he had breached his fiduciary duty of oversight by arguing that there is no fiduciary duty of oversight for officers, only for directors. VC Laster of the Delaware Chancery Court responded this way: “That observation is descriptively accurate, but it does not follow that officers do not owe oversight duties. For centuries dating back to the Roman satirist Juvenal, Europeans used the phrase ‘black swan’ as a figure of speech for something that did not exist. Then in the late eighteen century, Europeans arrived on the shores of Australia, where they found black swans. The fact that no one had seen one before did not mean that they could not or did not exist…. Framed in terms of the issue in this case, decisions recognizing director oversight duties confirm that directors owe those duties; those decisions do not rule out the possibility that officers also owe oversight duties.” With that—and a lengthy exposition—Laster confirmed that Fairhurst did indeed have a duty of oversight, much like the Caremark duties applicable to corporate directors.