In a press release earlier this week, United Way Worldwide tried and failed to clear itself of wrongdoing in response to federal charges of sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation filed by three former female employees and first reported by HuffPost.
The nonprofit, one of the largest in the country, said that a law firm it hired had done an “independent” investigation that was “thorough, thoughtful, and dutiful.” United Way said the firm, Proskauer Rose, found no evidence of “actionable harassment, discrimination or retaliation,” with regards to the employees’ complaints.
Some trade publications quickly ran stories claiming United Way was in the clear.
But the press release and other internal documents reviewed by HuffPost show no such thing. In fact, the law firm did not review the actual substance and material facts of the women’s complaints at all.
Instead, United Way Worldwide hired the law firm to examine how these women’s complaints were handled by the organization: appropriately, the press release says.
“They didn’t hire them to look at what happened and the culture. They hired them to come in and see if they followed their own policies,” said Jeanne Christensen, an employment lawyer who works on discrimination and harassment cases and reviewed the press release for HuffPost. “It’s totally self-serving propaganda.”
The press release demonstrates how narrow the scope of the inquiry was in other ways: The law firm spoke with only 23 current employees out of more than 200. No former employees were contacted, including the women who left and levied complaints (not uncommon practice in these kinds of inquiries). Nor did the law firm look at all that much evidence; just one box worth of documents, consisting mainly of policy manuals.
The fact that Proskauer Rose didn’t turn up evidence of wrongdoing is not surprising. And it is certainly not revelatory. “Means nothing,” Christensen said.
Current and former United Way employees told HuffPost they were frustrated, disappointed and disheartened by the results of the inquiry and the nonprofit’s lack of accountability and transparency, which is listed as a “core value” on the company’s website. Some expressed disbelief that CEO Brian Gallagher still held his job.
“I don’t think anybody thinks this makes sense,” said Afira DeVries, who spent 20 years as an executive at United Way, working in several of its local branches. “Any other time or place where we’ve heard of this misconduct, the first thing that happens is a leadership shift. And nothing at Worldwide. That is so arrogant.”
DeVries, who is Puerto Rican and one of the few female executives of color in the United Way network, said she also experienced retaliation when she worked at United Way; one big reason she left in 2019. She was one of multiple former employees to come forward publicly after the three initial complaints were reported.
United Way Worldwide declined HuffPost’s request to speak with Gallagher or the lawyers who conducted the investigation.
In a statement from the chairs of both its U.S. and global board of directors, the organization reiterated some of the claims in its press release and explained that it didn’t look into the substance of the women’s charges because the allegations were “dismissed” by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that oversees discrimination complaints.
That is not accurate: In one case, United Way settled with the woman, who signed a nondisclosure agreement. In another, the woman received the right to sue from the EEOC, which doesn’t itself resolve all the charges filed there. She decided she didn’t want to deal with the career, financial or emotional fallout of filing a case. One more charge is still pending.
United Way Worldwide launched its inquiry after HuffPost reported in November that three former female employees filed federal charges of discrimination and retaliation against United Way Worldwide. The women recounted similar experiences of retaliation: They were high-performing employees, but after speaking up about misconduct and harassment, two were fired and one effectively sidelined.
A report in Business Insider surfaced more complaints of sexism. After that, more than 20 former employees wrote a letter sharing that they had also experienced either sex discrimination, harassment, retaliation or pay inequality at United Way Worldwide.
The allegations upset local United Way offices, separate entities with their own boards and CEOs that pay fees to the home office run by Gallagher.
Hundreds stopped paying dues to the worldwide office; they waited to see how the investigation would play out, as HuffPost reported last week. It’s not clear yet if this press release and some documents about the inquiry that the worldwide office sent out will change minds.
The press release does say there’s some room for improvement within the organization’s culture and noted it would create a task force to examine those issues. Workplace culture and morale are areas that should be examined more deeply, the release said.
“The Boards want to hear from everyone – current and former employees – and look forward to their valuable input to the Culture Task Force, including from the three former employees who filed complaints,” the board chairs said in their statement to HuffPost. “The Boards recognize that there is still work to do, and the Task Force is just one of many avenues that will move the organization forward to continue to provide positive impact in our communities.”
This was somewhat heartening to current and former employees, but not enough.
Calling the report “inadequate,” the CEO of one local United Way office told HuffPost he wasn’t swayed. The CEO said he couldn’t be named for fear of retaliation.
For Proskauer Rose’s internal inquiry, according to the documents, the firm asked current employees to voluntarily come forward to provide relevant information through an anonymous and private email address. “All employees were twice contacted,” the press release said.
Ultimately, the firm interviewed 23 current United Way employees at “varying levels” in the organization. There’s no indication of whether these people had knowledge of the events at issue. It’s also unclear who those current employees were. Did they work in the human resources department where the women went to levy their initial reports of misconduct? Were they executive-level employees?
Also, it’s not clear how forthcoming those current employees could be. United Way Worldwide has been undergoing layoffs. People’s jobs are already on the line. Now is hardly a good time to complain.
And the issue at hand is uncomfortable and worrying: Former employees said they were fired or forced out for speaking candidly. Why would someone then come forward and speak candidly?
Though the press release said employees were assured of privacy, it’s not clear if Gallagher or the board of directors personally made that assurance.
In that atmosphere, “I would not feel safe,” said one former employee.
Not all internal investigations are created equal. Though most lawyers agree these kinds of inquiries are typically public relations exercises, they can sometimes be effective.
It all depends on what the organization truly wants the law firm to do.
When Fox News brought in a law firm to investigate its culture back in 2017, there was a good deal of reporting that the media outlet’s owners, the Murdochs, were actually in support of the inquiry and had turned against Roger Ailes, the embattled CEO. He was ultimately forced out of the network.
Even so, employees feared coming forward.
Proskauer Rose, the law firm hired by United Way Worldwide, typically defends large organizations against these kinds of claims, said Nancy Erika Smith, the lawyer who represented former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson in her harassment case against Ailes. (The suit sparked Fox’s inquiry.)
Indeed, CBS hired Proskauer a few years ago to investigate claims of wrongdoing surrounding its former CEO Les Moonves. After a few months, the firm turned up nothing, only interviewing 25 employees, according to reporting from The New York Times.
Ultimately, as the board decided to take the investigation more seriously and turned against Moonves, two other law firms were hired. They interviewed more than 250 current and former employees.
The CEO was ousted.
Just this week, CBS hired Proskauer again for a different internal investigation.
‘It Just Shows You What A Joke This Is’
In the press release, United Way says Proskauer reviewed “over 2,500 pages of documents” to conduct its inquiry.
The number, at first glance, might seem impressive. But in a typical discrimination case, just one side’s lawyers could examine 20 times that number of documents, said Christensen, who noted she’s working on a case now for one plaintiff that involves 50,000 pages of documents.
“It just shows you what a joke this is,” said Christensen, who’s handled cases against companies such as Uber, Avon and SoulCycle. Christensen pointed out that 2,500 pages could fill a single banker’s box.
The press release says that the law firm looked at documents that consisted of policies and procedures, complaints submitted to the Ethics Hotline, personnel records, employee surveys and various policy manuals.
Notably absent: emails, text threads. Records of human resource complaints. Former employees said that they weren’t aware of anyone ever calling the “Ethics Hotline.”
(Famously, Fox News had an ethics hotline that no one ever called.)
Essentially, it looks like lawyers had access to a box of documents made up mostly of policy manuals. It’s no surprise they found no evidence of wrongdoing, Christensen said.
“I know what my experiences were and I know how [my complaints] were handled, and that’s why I was very comfortable filing my charge under penalty of perjury.”
Crucially, Christensen pointed out, it is not up to the law firm in these kinds of situations to decide what an “investigation” looks like.
Boards of directors decide how many lawyers to hire, how much time they can take, who they can talk to and what documents they are allowed to look at.
Christensen laughed at the notion that this was an “investigation” of any official sort. “It sounds legitimate. That word invokes in the average reader that it’s something rigid codified and rule-following,” she said. “They’re not a court.”
Another employment law professor told Business Insider this week that the investigation was not credible.
In its release, United Way Worldwide makes sure to point out that its board of directors had oversight of this investigation. The investigation, therefore, was “independent.”
But at least one former employee questioned the board of directors’ independence and ability to truly hold CEO Gallagher to account. United Way Worldwide actually has two boards: One is global and one is in the U.S.
More than a decade ago, the U.S. board was composed of corporate bigwigs; CEOs from Fortune 500 companies, including FedEx. There were leaders from the nation’s largest labor unions, including the AFL-CIO and civil rights leaders. These days, there are fewer higher-profile names.
“The [board] does not have the same cachet as [in] prior years,” said a former employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of career repercussions. They questioned whether anyone on either board “has the gravitas to question Brian” or to “hold him accountable for the hostile work environment his hiring decisions have created.”
“There is speculation that is by design,” the former employee said.
An Insult To Women
Lisa Bowman, a former marketing executive at United Way Worldwide who filed a complaint accusing Gallagher of firing her for speaking up about misconduct, said she was disgusted by the investigation results released this week.
“I know what my experiences were and I know how [my complaints] were handled, and that’s why I was very comfortable filing my charge under penalty of perjury,” she said.
By absolving itself of wrongdoing in the cases of these three women, United Way Worldwide is also implying that those women are essentially lying, several people pointed out to HuffPost.
“That doesn’t sit well,” said DeVries, the former United Way executive.
DeVries said that when Bowman was fired, it was shocking. She’d had a reputation as a hard worker.
“These are not people who are going to lie and put themselves in these positions because it seems like a good idea to get retribution.”