Corporate ethics: Moral hazards
By Richard Waters in San
Published: August 13 2010 22:57
| Last updated: August 13 2010 22:57
Personal expense: proved or not,
sexual harassment allegations can cost CEOs such as Mark Hurd the
board of directors really force a highly regarded chief executive to quit
over an unsubstantiated sexual harassment claim and a handful of dinners on
the company dime? That, according to one version of events that has emerged
in recent days, is what happened when Hewlett-Packard last week jettisoned
Mark Hurd, its CEO of five years.
The loss of a man credited with reviving the
fortunes of the world’s biggest computer-maker, and the cloud of uncertainty
left hanging over the group as a result, has since wiped $13bn from its
stock market value.
A full picture is hard to assemble from the
partial facts that have emerged. But one thing is not in dispute: the saga
has become an exemplar of a new, stricter approach to boardroom ethics.
Depending on where you sit, it is evidence either of a well-intentioned
system gone awry or that the most powerful corporate figures are no longer
above the rules applied lower down the pecking order.
“If all you’re concerned about is an expense
account, there are other sanctions,” says Professor John Coffee of Columbia
Law School. “You could have taken away his bonus for the year. Most
companies would not have treated a peccadillo with this severity,
particularly when it inflicts such a penalty on shareholders.”
To others, though, the higher standards to
which corporate bosses are being held are part of a broader shift affecting
all of society. “Politicians and celebrities can’t get away with the things
they used to,” says Nell Minow, doyenne of the US corporate governance
movement. “Why should CEOs think they are any different?”
Complicating this picture is the fact that
boards, while far more open than today about how they deal with ethical
transgressions, still draw a veil over many of the facts. With enough to
feed a scandal-hungry media, but too few to enable a complete understanding
of whether justice has been served, the partial facts are used to support
prejudices on both sides.
While he has not commented in detail, Mr Hurd
said in a statement at the time he quit that there had been “instances in
which I did not live up to the standards and principles of trust, respect
and integrity that I have espoused at HP, and which have guided me
throughout my career”. This, he added, would make it “difficult for me to
continue as an effective leader at HP”. He received a severance package
valued at nearly $40m.
“In the end, if it is just about expense
reports, one has to question the board’s process,” says Prof David Yoffie of
Harvard Business School. Echoing a widely held view, though, he adds: “I’m
still not clear whether the real issue was [a reported] $20,000 [€15,600,
Ł12,800] in inaccurate expense reports or something greater.”
The case has highlighted three elements of
personal conduct for which CEOs are being held far more accountable – though
boards have struck different positions on how they deal with transgressions
and with the all-important question of disclosure.
The first concerns claims of sexual
harassment. This was the issue that touched off the events that led to Mr
Hurd’s departure, following an allegation from Jodie Fisher, a one-time
aspiring actress and former marketing consultant to HP. After its own
investigation, the company said it had found no violation of its sexual
harassment policy. Ms Fisher’s claim was settled privately for an
undisclosed sum the day before the CEO’s exit was finalised, according to a
person familiar with the matter.
Yet the very existence of the claim drove a
wedge between the board and its chief, according to one person close to the
situation. “Sexual harassment has been an explosive issue for 20 years,”
says Prof Charles Elson of the University of Delaware. Most suits are
settled out of court. But, as the charges are often hard to disprove, CEOs
who have stood accused have found it hard to regain the full support of
their boards, says Ms Minow.
When boards consider how to handle issues
such as this, advice from public relations experts comes straight after
that of lawyers, says a US corporate director who has sat on the boards of
10 companies. Protecting the image of a business is important at such times,
this person adds.
But even if attention to appearances is
essential, the impression that a board might have made a decision motivated
by its PR value is liable to backfire – as HP’s board, which took its own
external PR advice, has found.
Normally, companies seek to avoid the scandal
that comes from disclosure of harassment claims even if they feel compelled
to act. When Starwood Hotels forced Stephen Hilbert to step aside as CEO in
2007, the group said only that his “management style” had led to a loss of
confidence in his leadership. It emerged later that the board’s action had
been precipitated by the investigation arising from an allegation of sexual
harassment, though Mr Hilbert denied the charge.
HP’s board took the opposite approach. Even
though Ms Fisher’s claim had been settled and the company had decided there
had been no violation of its policy, it chose to make the claim public when
Mr Hurd’s departure was announced. To some, that points to an over-zealous
interpretation of the new responsibilities on directors and a disregard for
the reputation of its departing CEO.
The second issue highlighted by the case is
growing intolerance of affairs or other inappropriate relationships
involving bosses. HP said its CEO had had a “close personal relationship”
with Ms Fisher that violated its code of conduct – even though Ms Fisher has
said the two did not have sex.
US groups tend to take a stricter line than
European counterparts on affairs involving corporate bosses, say boardroom
experts. But the companies concerned invariably attribute their actions to a
higher ethical justification than mere prudishness.
When Harry Stonecipher was forced to quit as
Boeing CEO over an affair with an employee in 2005, it was not the fact of
the affair itself that was behind the move, chairman Lew Platt claimed at
the time. Rather, the circumstances showed “poor judgment” on the CEO’s part
and “impaired his ability to lead going forward”, he said.
Few CEOs who conduct affairs are likely to
escape a similar verdict when their personal behaviour is examined closely.
If the situation involves subordinates, they are liable to open themselves
to charges of abuse of authority, while if they involve business partners
they raise questions of conflict of interest.
to hide a relationship can itself lead to trouble – as Lord Browne
discovered when he was forced to resign as BP CEO in 2007. He lied to a
judge about where he had met a former lover, whose account of their
relationship he was seeking to keep out of the media.
Expense account abuse and the misuse of
company assets is the third issue that has been thrown into the spotlight
this week. The misstatement of expenses is often a catch-all offence that
boards use when they are looking for a way to discipline executives but find
the real cause too difficult or messy to deal with, experts say.
“It’s like the way the government takes on
the Mafia – that almost always ends up about tax evasion,” says the veteran
US corporate director. “The board’s approach is almost always oblique –
they’re never looking to tackle the issue head-on.”
HP, for its part, says its investigation into
the allegation of sexual misconduct uncovered “numerous” instances where
its CEO had put personal costs on his expense account or misused corporate
assets. Yet one person close to Mr Hurd says he had only about half a dozen
dinners with Ms Fisher and that, if expenses were misstated, it may have
been an error by his personal assistants. This did not appear to go far,
however, towards ex- plaining the full amount of expenses in question, which
one person close to the situation puts at up to $20,000.
In circumstances such as these, forcing a
successful CEO to resign may be too severe a punishment, backfiring mainly
on shareholders, according to more lenient observers.
But a more stringent view holds sway in many
boardrooms following the financial and ethical scandals of recent years.
External requirements – for instance, from governments requiring certain
standards from groups they do business with – in some cases reinforce this
discipline, says Ms Minow. If companies believe they can decide for
themselves how strictly they deal with transgressions such as the
misstatement of expenses, she adds, they are “completely ignorant about how
we do business now”.
As tolerance of ethical failures recedes,
however, it remains hard for the world to know what is really going on
behind the boardroom door. The old approach – a bland statement that an
executive is “leaving to spend more time with his family” – is often
considered insufficient. But for legal and PR reasons, most companies still
shrink from a full explanation of what has undermined their trust in a CEO.
The result in the HP case, says Gary Lutin, a
US shareholder activist, is that the board was able to show off its probity
and attention to disclosure, but shareholders were left none the wiser about
what really went on.
In this new world of partial transparency,
many directors must look longingly at the days when scandal could be swept
under the rug. What they have to look forward to instead are more boardroom
Hurd could receive $40m severance
By Richard Waters in San
Published: August 13 2010 23:03
| Last updated: August 13 2010 23:03
A loophole in
Mark Hurd’s contract made it hard for
Hewlett-Packard to dismiss him outright and added to pressure on the
board to give him severance pay which could be worth nearly $40m despite his
admission of ethical lapses, according to experts in boardroom practice.
The terms of the former HP chief executive’s
employment did not lay out any specific circumstances in which the company
would fire him “for cause”, which would have enabled it to avoid paying
This contrasts with the contracts of most
chief executives in the US, whose contracts usually lay out more detailed
conditions on which they can be fired, including for breaches of a company’s
ethical code of behaviour, said Nell Minow, a US corporate governance
Mr Hurd resigned under pressure a week ago
after admitting that he did not “live up to the standards and principles of
trust, respect and integrity that I have espoused at HP”. The company said
he had left by agreement with the board over expense violations and a “close
personal relationship” with an external contractor that contravened its code
Mr Hurd’s severance includes $12m in cash plus stock benefits. The value
of the latter cannot yet be calculated, but the total package probably comes
to about $40m, according to one person close to the situation. The Hurd
pay-out has drawn criticism from governance experts and has already become a
focus of the first shareholder lawsuit filed against HP over his departure.
“If it was really about
Hurd submitting a misleading expense report, I’m sure they could have found
a lawyer somewhere in America who thought that justified firing him without
a dime of severance,” said Gary Lutin, a US shareholder activist. [See
HP’s board could have sought to fire Mr Hurd for cause even without a
clear definition of circumstances in his contract, experts said. However,
that would have made it far harder to defend any legal action from him later
to recover his severance. “The squishier the definition, the harder it is to
prove cause,” said Charles Elson, of the University of Delaware.
Even if Mr Hurd’s contract had not contained
the loophole, HP would probably still have been unwilling to fire him over
the ethical lapses he admitted to since it might have “led to a slugfest
over the expenses”, Mr Elson said.