This story has been updated to include a HSUS statement.
Less than 24 hours after the Humane Society of United States (HSUS) board voted to not fire its president and chief executive officer, Wayne Pacelle has tendered his resignation effective immediately.
Pacelle was accused by three female HSUS employees of sexual harassment. The board said there was no credible evidence against Pacelle and did not fire him after the 7-hour meeting on Thursday.
Kitty Block, president of the Humane Society International, was appointed acting president and chief executive officer. She has been with HSUS since 1992.
“The past few days have been very hard for our entire family of staff and supporters,” said Board Chairman Rick Bernthal via a statement. “We are profoundly grateful for Wayne’s unparalleled level of accomplishments and service to the cause of animal protection and welfare.”
Bernthal also announced the resignation of board member Erika Brunson.
Pacelle did not return messages to him on his cell phone.
Allegations against Pacelle included kissing a former intern against her will in 2005, an incident in which it was alleged he asked to masturbate in front of and offered oral sex to a former employee in a hotel room in 2006, and a late-night request for one employee to salsa dance with him in 2012, according to The Washington Post. Pacelle denied the allegations.
The NonProfit Times reached out to several HSUS board members for comment. Contacted board members either did not respond or told The NonProfit Times that all media inquiries would be handled by the HSUS press office. Calls and emails placed to HSUS were not returned.
HSUS had released a statement late Friday afternoon. The statement, addressed from Bernthal, indicated that the organization had received word of a 2005 incident last month, retained law firm Morgan Lewis, and conducted an investigation over the past four weeks. Ultimately the decision was made to retain Pacelle who ultimately resigned.
“The board reviewed the information assembled and determined that there was not sufficient evidence to remove Wayne Pacelle from his position as CEO,” the statement reads. “Many of the allegations were explosive in nature, and reading or hearing about them is a shock to anyone. It was to us, too. But when we sifted through the evidence presented, we did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence.”
Pacelle has served as head of HSUS since 2004 and has been recognized as a leader in the sector. He has been named to The NonProfit Times Power & Influence Top 50 seven times during his tenure, including in each of the past five years.
A History of Silence
Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness, an organization that provides online resources for those facing harassment in the workplace, described HSUS’ retention of Pacelle as “completely irresponsible.”
“I find it very troubling,” she said. “What I saw was that they substantiated the complaints . . . They just said ‘We’re not going to do anything about it.’”
Brantner described the past few months as a watershed moment for those harassed or abused at work, where the status quo will no longer suffice. The hopeless feeling many have felt has subsided and been replaced with an environment in which people feel as though they can step forward and be listened to. Sexual harassment at work has always been going on, she said, perhaps more crudely in years past. Women have long faced difficult legal standards in terms of proving sexual harassment cases, so many have decided to not pursue actions out of fear of jeopardizing their own reputations or careers. Workplace standards have risen over time.
The nonprofit sector is particularly susceptible to harassment, Brantner said. Organizations are often small and underfunded, without human-resource departments and mechanisms in place to report misconduct. Some individuals might choose not to report harassment due to concerns that the fallout might harm the organization’s mission. The tight-knit nature of the sector also makes other employment options difficult, according to Brantner.
“May of us work in fields that are very small and insular,” she said. “It’s hard to go somewhere else. I think this is something that the nonprofit world will have to take a serious look at.”
Harassment and assault in the workplace often is facilitated by smaller disrespectful actions, according to Linda A. Seabrook, general counsel and director of legal programs for Futures Without Violence — which runs Workplaces Respond, a national resource center for those harassed or abused at work, for the Department of Justice. Harassment has been going on for generations and was particularly pervasive in the 1970s and 1980s as women began entering the workplace and climbing organizational ladders. Seabrook said that organizations need to look at institutionalized sexism in the workplace — are women being talked over or passed over for opportunities? Is there true equality in the workplace? If not, harassment might soon follow.
“Sex is the vehicle,” Seabrook said. “This is about power and control.”
Workplace policies are only as good as the paper that they are written on, she said. Efforts need to be made to reinforce those values and efforts. If the policy says one thing, but employees are doing another, sexual harassment can flourish. Those that have been harassed also need to seek out advocates or lawyers who can help go over potential options. Sexual harassment is often unreported because loss of workplace opportunities and retaliation are feared, an issue especially prevalent among lower-wage workers. There is a reason Title VII include sexual harassment, Seabrook said, it impacts opportunities in the workplace.
There also has to be a sense that there are consequences for actions. What does it say to victims and other employees that, following harassing behavior, nothing is done? Seabrook declined to opine on the HSUS situation, but did note that one of the individuals who was allegedly harassed left the organization. Sexual harassment, in some cases, is a means of male employees eliminating the competition by making the workplace unbearable. In situations, like HSUS, where there are allegations and associated backlash, Seabrook recommends getting down to the organization’s roots.
“In that situation, if I were CEO, let’s make sure that we have the type of workplace I’m saying we have and institute a broader prevent and strategy,” she said. “Also get into the weeds. That’s why a climate survey is so good. What are employees feeling? Get to the bottom of that potential backlash.”
(NPT Editor-in-Chief Paul Clolery contributed to this report.)