Stroock Panel Examines Corporate Responsibility in the #MeToo Era
All-star program including former Federal Judge and New York Attorney General addresses best practices for corporate leaders in dealing with workplace misconduct
New York, March 20, 2018 — In the ongoing discussion around the #MeToo movement, questions still remain about best practices for companies facing workplace sexual harassment and employee misconduct claims, including conducting a thorough investigation that respects all constituents, including employees, shareholders, the media and public and the individuals involved.
Law firm Stroock sponsored a panel discussion in its New York office on March 20 addressing these topics. The program, headlined “Challenges in the World of #MeToo: Reacting Quickly and Responsibly,” was the latest in a series of Stroock Government Leadership Forums.
Introduced by Stroock partner and former New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams, the panel included former United States District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin and Stroock partner and veteran employment lawyer Howard Lavin. Judge Scheindlin and Mr. Abrams lead Stroock’s recently launched Internal Investigations Unit, of which Mr. Lavin is a member.
Joining them on the panel were prominent plaintiffs’ attorney Rosalind Fink and KPMG’s Senior Advisor, Board Leadership Center, Susan Angele. New York Times Opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss moderated the panel.
Among other topics, the panel discussed the importance of conducting a credible independent investigation, particularly in the face of public pressure calling for quick, decisive action.
“A cultural revolution is taking place within our society aimed at eliminating workplace misconduct, particularly sexual harassment. It is important for employers to have policies and programs in place which seek to prevent it from happening and to know the best way to react when accusations are made,” said Mr. Abrams.
Judge Scheindlin urged companies to do all they can to prevent workplace misconduct, such as sexual harassment and discrimination. “Companies must be vigilant to ensure a safe and pleasant workplace for all employees. Women deserve to be treated respectfully at all times. If a problem occurs it must be immediately addressed within the company. A fast and decisive response reduces company exposure and often satisfies the complaining employee.”
Mr. Lavin’s practice focuses on employment and labor law matters, including developing customized personnel policies and procedures and advising on discipline and discharge issues, discrimination claims, diversity and workplace monitoring.
He says, “this has been an inflection point. Companies are realizing that not taking strong enough action against workplace misconduct, particularly sexual harassment, can be a reputation and business killer.”
“This discussion has risen up to the boardroom for the first time,” points out Ms. Angele, a corporate governance expert who has held in-house roles including Chief Governance Officer at The Hershey Company and Chief Counsel, US Snacks at Mondelez (then Kraft/Nabisco). She has also served as a member of the Board, the Governance Committee and the Executive Committee of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Ms. Angele provided the in-house perspective, pointing out that particularly at the board level, there is more discussion about tone at the top.
As a plaintiff’s attorney, Ms. Fink has represented both victims of sexual harassment and persons accused. She says victims now are less fearful of reputational harm and the risk that their allegations will not be taken seriously, while persons accused are now reporting abrupt terminations following investigations that appear inadequate.
Ms. Fink heads the employment and education law practices at law firm Brill & Meisel and was previously the Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at Columbia University and New York State Assistant Attorney General.
The panelists agreed that paramount is an investigative process with integrity that can be trusted by all stakeholders.
Formed earlier this year in response to the #MeToo movement, Stroock’s Internal Investigations Unit assists clients in implementing policies to protect against workplace harassment and discrimination, and maintaining stronger channels for reporting inappropriate workplace behavior. The Unit is also available to conduct independent investigations for clients responding to allegations of workplace misconduct, including sexual harassment. In addition, Stroock conducts tailored anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training.
The new Unit is led by two of Stroock’s most respected senior practitioners.
Judge Scheindlin has long been a leader on gender equity in the legal profession. In 2017, she co-authored a groundbreaking New York State Bar Association study on Achieving Equality for Women Attorneys. During her 22 years on the bench in the Southern District of New York, Judge Scheindlin authored the landmark Zubulake opinions, a series of rulings in a case focused on the intersection of gender discrimination in the workplace and electronic discovery. She is also a former federal prosecutor.
Judge Scheindlin recently co-authored with fellow Stroock lawyer Joel Cohen a commentary for The Guardian entitled “After #MeToo, we can't ditch due process,” discussing the need for due process in any investigation, no matter how high-profile or inflammatory the accusations.
Mr. Abrams served four terms as New York’s Attorney General and also served as President of the National Association of Attorneys General. He spearheaded numerous investigations of public companies, private firms and government activities. A leader in ensuring diversity in the hiring of his staff and in protecting the rights of employees, he led enforcement actions and prosecutions of workplace-related misdeeds. Other members of the Unit include Joel Cohen, an experienced criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor, Liz DiMichele, an expert in employment law who frequently provides training to clients, and Michele Pahmer, a litigator with extensive workplace discrimination experience.
Stroock provides strategic transactional, regulatory and litigation advice to advance the business objectives of leading financial institutions, multinational corporations and entrepreneurial businesses in the U.S. and globally. With a rich history dating back 140 years, the firm has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C.