2 executives depart Nature Conservancy after harassment probe
Two senior officials at The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s most influential environmental groups, have exited the organization after an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct, according to documents obtained by POLITICO.
The departures of Mark Burget, who headed the group’s North American operations, and Kacky Andrews, who led global programs, were announced in an email Tuesday from CEO Mark Tercek to staff. It said the group’s president, Brian McPeek, who stepped into “a less active role” during an investigation, will now return to his job.
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The Nature Conservancy’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment comes amid rising scrutiny of executives of several companies and organizations, as the #MeToo movement has heightened attention to pervasive mistreatment of women.
The Nature Conservancy, considered the world’s largest environmental organization, has long had fans on both sides of the political aisle and around the globe, appealing to both liberal environmentalists seeking to preserve sensitive regions as well as conservatives who support its mission to protect areas for recreation. It listed nearly $1.3 billion in total revenue and support in 2018.
A spokesperson for The Nature Conservancy on Wednesday night confirmed the departures of Burget and Andrews and that McPeek remains the president.
The moves laid out in the memo follow the conclusion of an internal investigation of the organization’s workplace culture by the law firm McDermott Will & Emery. Tercek wrote that the investigation revealed that female employees believed The Nature Conservancy’s “culture can make it difficult for women to thrive.”
That investigation found that “[s]pecifically, in several instances where there were serious allegations of misconduct, TNC opted for no or minor discipline because TNC perceived the event as ‘he said/she said’ with no corroborating evidence. In these instances, the accused was given the benefit of the doubt,” the report said.
The report said The Nature Conservancy must update how it “approaches investigating these claims.” It faulted the organization for failing to adequately investigate anonymous claims made through its employee hotline, insufficiently training employees on how to conduct themselves — especially in the presence of alcohol and off-site — and providing too little reporting about harassment complaints to the board.
“[N]umerous employees who contacted the hotline or McDermott’s investigator reported that TNC is a male-dominated culture where it is difficult for women to flourish,” the report said.
McDermott Will & Emery was brought in to investigate by a special committee to The Nature Conservancy’s board of directors following a series of March 21 tweets by an anonymous Twitter user alleging sexual misconduct by an executive at the organization. The law firm interviewed 34 people, of whom 32 were former or current Nature Conservancy employees and 29 were women. The report said two witnesses were contacted but refused to be interviewed. The “exhaustive” review encompassed “thousands of documents,” including personnel files, emails, code of conduct, job transfer correspondence and previous sexual harassment complaints, among other items.
Complaints from four female employees against one executive that sparked the March 21 tweets were made between May 2014 and March 2018 to the organization’s hotline. A former employee later identified herself as a victim of an “unwelcome” kiss at a February 2010 conference, according to the report, which declared the woman “credible” even though the executive denied the kiss occurred.
The report said the woman “is concerned about how TNC continues to ignore a male dominant culture which is deep-rooted and prolific.”
Ultimately, though, McDermott Will & Emery did not advise reprimanding the executive because of “the passage of time, the fact that it was not reported, and the absence of any other women coming forward.”
The report said the three other female employees named in calls to The Nature Conservancy’s hotline were the subject of claims that were largely based on rumor and perception of inappropriate relationships, interactions and promotions, which the executives and the named co-workers denied.
McDermott also wrote that two other executives — identified as Executives 2 and 3 in the report — began a romantic relationship without disclosing it to The Nature Conservancy in a timely manner as the organization’s policy required. Executive No. 3 reported to executive No. 2, who was responsible for her performance review and recommended a 15 percent raise, which she received. Executive No. 2 also endorsed No. 3 for an executive committee spot, which Tercek granted, the report said.
The report found that both the raise and recommendation to the executive committee position were “a conflict of interest,” and that while the two eventually disclosed their relationship after a “thirteen-month delay,” they both were “dishonest about the status of their relationship.” Executive No. 2’s influence in executive No. 3’s executive committee post, review and raise came during the period when they were in an undisclosed relationship, the report said.
Tercek sought to close the chapter on the issue in his email, writing to staff that “[i]t is now time for us to move forward, based not only on the report’s recommendations regarding personnel, but also in making sure that we are an organization that is leading on how it manages issues of sexual harassment or other improper work conduct and doing the work necessary to ensure a culture in which all have equal opportunities to succeed and to support our mission.”
The report added that in the future, “those who investigate will need to make credibility determinations even when there is no corroborating evidence. Central to this determination, and what was missing in many of these investigations, is real evaluation of why/whether the person coming forward has an incentive to lie.”
The Nature Conservancy spokesperson said in a statement to POLITICO: “We are thoroughly considering and exploring the additional recommendations made by the MWE report, including how TNC can strengthen our investigation process, more thoroughly investigate anonymous claims, revamp related trainings, and improve our reporting to the Board. Mark Tercek fully supports these recommendations, and will lead the work to implement them.
“The organization is taking on a broader culture initiative to ensure that TNC is a place where everyone feels valued and respected and that there is a level playing field with equal access for all. This is our CEO’s highest priority.”