Dallas Mavericks Scramble on Compliance

The Dallas Mavericks, hobbled recently by allegations of sexual misconduct and workplace bullying, are looking to hire a chief ethics and compliance officer.

The Mavericks posted the job last week, after a damning expose in Sports Illustrated that alleged a long history of sexual misconduct and dysfunctional culture at the team. No word on salary, but the job description emphasizes the importance of ethics, a speakup culture, and enforcing good conduct::

The ethics and compliance officer serves as the organization’s internal control point for ethics and improprieties, allegations, complaints, and conflicts of interest. This position is also responsible for the corporate culture as well as compliance with corporate policies. The position advises corporate leadership on policy compliance, ethics and cultural matters.

Duties include a review of corporate policies to ensure they support the Mavericks’ corporate values, integrating the ethical message into corporate culture, managing the internal complaints program, and investigating reports of misconduct or conflicts of interest.

In other words, the Mavericks are looking for a tried-and-true corporate ethics and compliance program.

For the record, the job posting does identify this role as a legal department job; and does not say whether the CCO would report to the team’s general counsel, CEO, or board of directors. Then again, given the damning press the Mavericks have received, plus the NBA’s newfound attention to sexual misconduct and bullying in team offices, I would not be surprised if this chief compliance officer gets the personal cell phone number of team owner Mark Cuban on the first day of the job.

Cuban has already laid some groundwork to repair the Mavericks’ culture. Even before the Sports Illustrated expose on Feb. 20, the team said it would implement a hotline to provide support services for employees, and require sensitivity training for all employees, Cuban included. So whoever lands this job won’t be starting from zero (although it sounds like zero might be in the team’s recent past).

The Mavericks Misconduct

The allegations against the team are worth examination. They center on Terdema Ussery, CEO of the Mavericks from 1997 to 2015.

According to Sports Illustrated, Ussery’s misconduct toward female employees began as soon as he arrived. By the following summer, the team conducted an investigation into harassment allegations several female employees made against him.

Ussery kept his job, but the team revamped its sexual harassment policies and hired a new head of HR, Buddy Pittman. Pittman was placed in a cubicle within earshot of Ussery’s office, all the better to hear anything new offenses Ussery might do or say.

As years passed, allegations against Ussery continued: inappropriate language, inappropriate touching, and lewd comments about female employees’ supposed sexual appetites. According to one woman, Ussery struck up a conversation with her in the 2010-11 season. Speculating about her weekend plans, he said: “You’re going to get gang-banged, aren’t you?”

Other Mavericks executives look just as bad. A writer in the team’s publicity department, Earl Sneed, was charged in 2011 with beating his girlfriend (arrested in the Mavericks’ office, no less). Sneed later began dating a Mavericks colleague, and punched her in the face in 2014.

The woman then complained to Pittman, the HR director hired to keep Ussery in check. Pittman apparently did nothing to address her concerns. She quit, while Sneed continued working for the Mavericks until the Sports Illustrated expose was published. Then team owner Mark Cuban fired Sneed and Pittman both.

Another woman complained in 2013 to her boss, the vice president of marketing, about Ussery’s behavior and the Mavericks’ overall lousy culture. She claims he then berated and threatened her for speaking up.

Ussery, meanwhile, left the Mavericks in 2015 to take a job as president of Under Armour. The accusations started piling up there, too, and Ussery left the company only two months after he arrived.

The Hallmarks of Bad Culture

The striking thing about the allegations against Ussery and the Mavericks is that they feel so familiar. A powerful CEO takes liberties with younger, less powerful female employees. Investigations happen, but don’t result in discipline against offenders. Other executives work to neutralize the employees making allegations, rather than the employee causing them.

That plotline is no different than what we’ve heard about Fox News and Bill O’Reilly; the Today Show and Matt Lauer; the Weinstein Co. and Harvey Weinstein; or Wynn Resorts and Steve Wynn. We can distill that dysfunction into three key problems.

First, these organizations have unchecked senior executives — charismatic, larger-than-life figures who dazzle their peers and superiors, which leaves them in excellent position to abuse subordinates. The best way to prevent that is for the board to establish strong governing structures around senior executives, so that personal misconduct automatically triggers extra oversight or discipline. Ignore those structural checks, and trouble brews. (I explored this concept in a post several weeks ago about Steve Wynn and his feckless board.)

Second, the organizations have flawed reporting mechanisms that don’t send allegations of misconduct to people empowered to do something about them. Sure, the Mavericks hired Pittman to watch Ussery for signs of trouble — but when the head of HR reports to the CEO, the company cannot investigate allegations against the CEO effectively. Instead, the HR function ends up protecting the senior executive rather than rooting out misconduct. This is why an independent chief ethics and compliance officer is so important.

Third, the organizations allow a culture of protection to fester. This results from the first two mistakes. When a Second Line of Defense function like HR protects senior management rather than hold senior management accountable, executives in the First Line of Defense see that behavior and emulate it. That’s how you get a vice president of marketing yelling at his subordinates when they try to speak up about the CEO being a grab-happy creep.

Enter the Cuban

Can team owner Mark Cuban salvage this mess? That remains unclear. He claims that he only paid attention to basketball operations, and didn’t know team executives ran the business end of the team like a frat house. Consider his statement to Sports Illustrated:

“I was involved in basketball operations, but other than getting the financials and reports, I was not involved in the day to day [of the business side] at all. That’s why I just deferred. I let people do their jobs. And if there were anything like this at all I was supposed to be made aware, obviously I was not.”



That’s believable, because Cuban does obsess over those things that interest him and ignores others. Nobody has made any allegations against Cuban himself, and as soon as Cuban did discover what was amiss (via Sports Illustrated asking him for comment), he began firing people and implementing an ethics & compliance program.

It’s also possible that Cuban turned a blind eye to a nettlesome problem he didn’t want to deal with, and is scrambling now that the public is aware of the Mavericks’ problems.

My question: to whom will this new chief ethics & compliance officer report? If it’s the general counsel or CEO, that undermines the message Cuban wants to send. If it’s Cuban or the Mavericks board, that’s a good sign.

And whoever gets this job, we already know one other fact. He or she will be the hottest speaker on the compliance conference circuit by 2019.

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