US companies face shareholder votes over #MeToo

Directors at companies including Amazon and Walmart are being called on to step up their fight against sexual harassment as the #MeToo movement forces its way on to the agenda of US annual meetings for the first time.

Campaigners have argued that investors should vote in favour of strengthened board oversight to prevent further scandals because such controversies can damage corporate reputations and wipe billions of dollars off market capitalisations.

“You want to know that the board knows what’s going on, and is actively working on managing the risk,” said Sarah Lewis, an official with the AFL-CIO union federation. Hospitality, technology and logistics are among the sectors being targeted.

In a sign that the scrutiny is leading some companies to review their stance, activists have dropped a demand for a shareholder ballot on the issue at CBS after they reached a settlement with the media group, according to people familiar with the matter.

CBS, whose longtime chief executive Les Moonves left last year in light of sexual misconduct allegations, had faced calls to review the terms of incentive pay packages and consider wider policy changes. CBS declined to comment on the terms of its agreement with the Service Employees International Union.

The property sector is also in the spotlight. Institutional Shareholder Services, the influential shareholder advisory group, is backing a call for the property company CBRE to prepare a report on the use of mandatory arbitration in dealing with sexual harassment claims. 

Under mandatory arbitration, employees forfeit their right to sue the company and agree to have a dispute heard by a neutral party, often in private. Some companies, including Google, Microsoft and Uber, have dropped this practice after accusations that it was being used to bury allegations of sexual harassment.

However, in response to the calls for strengthened board oversight, several companies said they were already doing enough to deal with the problem, pointing to initiatives including anti-harassment training for staff and anonymous hotlines.

CBRE said it took the “prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace very seriously”. The preparation of a report on the use of mandatory arbitration, demanded by AFL-CIO, would be “unnecessary given the company’s established and ongoing practices” and its preparation would be “costly, inefficient and distracting”.

Amazon, which campaigners are calling on to consider the release of statistics including the number of disciplinary actions, said it “does not tolerate sexual harassment”.

The ecommerce company had taken steps including “reporting mechanisms” for employees to report allegations and a ban on retaliation for those who made complaints in good faith.

United for Respect, which represents retail workers, has called on Walmart to compile a report reviewing how it dealt with sexual harassment allegations. But Walmart said this was “unnecessary”.

“Our policy strictly prohibits discrimination or harassment,” the retailer said, adding that such a review would “distract from the execution of other important and ongoing strategic initiatives”.

Companies typically face shareholder votes on a wide range of matters and such motions often receive low levels of support. Even so, the backing of ISS for the review of mandatory arbitration by CBRE suggests some institutional investors could back the demands.

“Additional information regarding the risk associated with a mandatory arbitration policy may bring information to light that could result in improved recruitment, development, and retention,” ISS said. 

AFL-CIO said: “It is no longer socially acceptable to deny victims of sexual harassment their day in court.”

Demands for stronger board oversight will also be on the ballot at several property companies with interests in hotels.

Courtney Alexander, deputy director at campaign group Unite Here, said: “Investors are aware that the issue of sexual harassment is a real one in the hospitality industry. In the wake of the public #MeToo movement, it’s certainly getting more attention.”




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