Investigations, Governance, and Romance

Heartbreaker of a tale unfolding at the Romance Writers of America this week: a misconduct complaint filed against the head of the RWA’s ethics committee has backfired, leading to a revolt of the group’s membership, half the board resigning in protest, and the organization’s flagship event canceled for 2020. 

Ethics and compliance professionals should give this cautionary tale a read, since it offers some fascinating lessons about internal investigations, board governance, and definitions of misconduct in our hyper-transparent age.


Chapter 1. Courtney Milan, an accomplished romance novelist (and lawyer), fired off several tweets last summer that blasted the 1999 romance novel Somewhere Lies the Moon as “a f—king racist mess.” Milan, who is half-Chinese, denounced the book’s description of Asians as “slightly yellow” and “slanted almond eyes,” among other faults. (This was part of a larger, long-running discussion about racism in the RWA.)

Chapter 2. Kathryn Lynn Davis, author of Somewhere Lies the Moon, filed an ethics complaint against Milan. In her complaint, Davis said Milan’s tweets amounted to cyber-bullying, and that the online backlash against Davis cost her a pending three-book publishing contract. Davis said Milan’s tweets violated the RWA’s core values of fostering creative and professional growth, through the free exchange of ideas. A second romance writer who works with filed a second complaint, also accusing Milan of smearing Davis unfairly.

Chapter 3. The RWA began an investigation into Milan. Since Milan herself was chair of the group’s ethics committee at the time, the RWA created a sub-committee of all new members who hadn’t worked with Milan, to avoid any conflict of interest. On Dec. 11, that new committee determined that Milan had violated “the association’s express purpose of creating a safe and respectful environment for its community.” 

The recommended punishment: a one-year suspension from the RWA, and a lifetime ban on Milan ever holding a leadership position again. Which is quite the perverse outcome for what started as Milan calling out racist language people should not use.

Chapter 4. All hell breaks loose. Once word spread of Milan’s punishment, other RWA members scorched the organization for saying that raising concerns about racism could be grounds for an ethics violation. #IStandWithCourtney started making the rounds on Twitter. RWA members launched a recall petition against Damon Suede, who took over as board president a few weeks ago after the prior president resigned. Even novelist Nora Roberts weighed in with a blog post denouncing the RWA as out of step with its membership.  

Chapter 5. The RWA reversed course on Dec. 30, with a statement that rescinded any punishment against Milan. Still, the damage was done. On Jan. 9 Suede resigned, along with the RWA’s executive director. So many publishers and writers pulled out of the RWA’s 2020 awards that the event has been canceled; the RWA’s annual conference is in jeopardy too. Eight RWA board directors have resigned. 

The RWA also announced it had hired a law firm to review the complaint against Milan and how it was handled, which certainly sounds much needed. Right now the process of that investigation remains a mystery, with a result nobody likes.

So — high drama, all around. What can compliance professionals learn here? 

Lessons in Literature

First, this is a cautionary tale about poorly written Codes of Conduct, that leave people confused about what is or isn’t permitted. 

The RWA’s code is long on contorted sentence structure, short on examples, and entirely text-based. It offers no devices to help readers navigate from the problem on their minds to the solution RWA wants them to follow — which is, after all, what a company wants its Code of Conduct to do. 

Contrast that to forward-thinking companies that offer interactive Codes, or weave their codes into “choose your own adventure” apps where employees can start by saying, “I want to know more about…” and then are guided to the right material. That’s where we need corporate Codes of Conduct to be. 

I appreciate that perhaps the RWA doesn’t have as much money as large corporations to draft a spiffy code; and we see plenty of large corporations whose codes are still two steps short of a Franz Kafka novel. That doesn’t change the fact that the RWA’s code is unhelpful.

Second, we should also note that the RWA’s code isn’t quite clear on what conduct is or isn’t permissible — or rather, could one action seem to violate the code in one place, but be permitted in another? 

For example, the RWA code says: “RWA members strive to treat fellow members, RWA staff, and others with respect.” Milan calling another person’s book a f—king mess on Twitter doesn’t seem respectful, even when the mess is racist. The code also says it’s a violation to engage in acts of “violent, harassing or intimidating conduct that objectively threaten” a member’s career or reputation. 

Did Milan engage in an act that harmed Davis’ career and reputation? Yes. Was that intentional? I suspect not (although I don’t know the history here); calling out racist language was her point. Plus, the very next sentence of the RWA code says non-RWA operated social media posts are excluded from that policy — which would imply that Milan didn’t do anything wrong. 

My point is that the RWA Code of Conduct can confuse the reader, or leave two readers with different perceptions of what is or isn’t allowed. That’s a trap, and one that can be addressed with a bit of imagination, focus, and clarity about what’s important. You’d think a bunch of professional writers would do better. (Editor’s note: That last sentence was a cheap shot. I shouldn’t have said it and regret that I did. I am leaving it in because I don’t believe in erasing mistakes from the record, but ugh, I am sorry I said it and glad people complained.) 

The Importance of Governance

The other big lesson here is how social media is such an accelerant for modern risk management. Milan’s tweet put everything into motion, and her defenders used social media to assert their view of what the RWA’s acceptable conduct should be. 

For Davis’ part, she now says she was manipulated into filing her complaint against Milan; that she never wanted to see Milan punished so harshly, and RWA staffers “wanted us very badly to file these complaints.”

A cynic would say that perhaps RWA staffers had a beef with Milan, and saw Davis’ complaint as a chance to force Milan out of power. That turned out to be a grave misreading of RWA members’ priorities, which backfired spectacularly — as petty political games often do.

So one set of RWA stakeholders (its members) used social media to wage war against another set of RWA stakeholders (senior management) that did something the members didn’t like. And because social media is such an accelerant, the members won. I’ve written about this effect of social media before, and it’s on blazing display here. (Also, in membership organizations, members do get primacy, after all. Social media is simply a prism that amplifies disputes and tensions.)

One other question: Where was the board during all this? I’m glad to see that eight of them had enough ethical principle to resign in protest after Milan was sanctioned — but superior board members would sense these forces and tensions before they come to such an explosive moment. 

That’s the lesson in governance here: that social media can increase friction among stakeholders, so the board of directors must be more attuned to issues of corporate culture, mission and values, and definitions of good conduct. Walking out in protest is just a noble way to say you weren’t paying attention earlier. 

And with that, I’m off to find a good book to read. I prefer history.

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