Imagine you're a high-profile billionaire. You're so revered for your business expertise that you've become a television star known for dispensing sage to those who want to run their own businesses. Then an official report comes out that calls the working atmosphere at your company "disturbing and heartbreaking." Sexual harassment had become so routine that women who landed jobs there were often warned away by their friends. When one visibly battered employee told HR that her boyfriend, a co-worker, had assaulted her, no action was taken as a result.
That's precisely what just happened to Mark Cuban. Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated published a report on the toxic working atmosphere at the Dallas Mavericks' business office that made Uber under Travis Kalanick sound like kindergarten. After the story came out, the NBA launched a several-month-long investigation. The result is a 43-page report released yesterday that details widespread sexual harassment at the company, with former CEO Terdema Ussery as the worst offender. Ussery was known for fondling female employees against their will or telling them they would be "gang-banged," so that most did their best to avoid being alone with him. (The problems appear to have all been at the business office. No players have been accused of any misconduct.)
Cuban inherited Ussery when he bought the Mavericks from Ross Perot in 2000, but kept him on for 15 years. (It's worth noting that Ussery was as good for the Mavericks' bottom line as he was bad for the team's female employees.) Ussery left in 2015 for a high-profile job at Under Armour, but then abruptly resigned three months later. Though the company did not say why he left, it did note that it has no tolerance for harassment when questioned by SI.
"The worst day of your life."
Even more damning is Cuban's dealings with Earl Sneed, the beat writer for Mavs.com. In 2011, Sneed assaulted his girlfriend, pinning her to the floor, slapping her, and telling her "Today is gonna be the worst day of your life." She wound up with multiple bruises and a broken wrist. Sneed, arrested near his workplace two months later, pled guilty to family violence assault. Not only did Cuban keep Sneed on, he offered to pay his legal fees. In 2014, Sneed was dating a female Mavericks employee--they'd disclosed the relationship as company policy required--when he once again turned violent. She appeared at work, her face swollen and visibly bruised, and reported the incident to HR. But not only did Sneed keep his job, he also became co-host of the Fox Sports Southwest weekly TV show "Mavs Insider."
In fact, nothing bad happened to him until a Sports Illustrated reporter asked Cuban why Sneed still had a job after what he'd done. At that point, Cuban suspended Sneed, and then fired him a day later.
If you think all this makes Cuban look very, very bad--you're right. At best, he was neglectful of his own organization, essentially asleep at the wheel. At worst--as some harassment victims claim--he knew what was going on but turned a blind eye because of the Mavericks' solid financial performance. Neither version is acceptable in any business leader, let alone one who holds himself up as a model for everybody else.
But even when you've done something very, very wrong, you can still take action to make things better, and Cuban has. It's likely thanks to this quick action and forthrightness that the NBA has not called for discipline against him, or forced him out of the league, or even temporarily suspended him. He's set an example for leaders everywhere in how to respond to a crisis with a level head and a lot of emotional intelligence.
1. He didn't panic.
It would have been easy to, especially in the #MeToo era and given the severity of the accusations. It must have been particularly tempting for Cuban to blow up when Ussery gave a statement to SI claiming not only that no one he knew of had ever accused him of harassment, but that he himself had complained to the Mavericks organization about other employees committing sexual harassment and had been ignored--so that they were now trying to pin the blame on him.
Then and since, Cuban merely said that he stayed out of the day-to-day operations of the Mavericks business office and had "deferred" to Ussery as CEO. "I let people do their jobs," he told SI. "And if there were anything like this at all I was supposed to be made aware, obviously I was not."
2. He didn't make excuses.
As a celebrity, Cuban knows that stonewalling an issue will only make things worse for him, and so he hasn't. Cuban said from the beginning that he would speak publicly about the accusations after the NBA investigation was done, and he kept his word. The day after the report appeared, he sat for a lengthy interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols who asked some very tough questions and he answered them all with candor.
Even in the most benign interpretation, she said, Cuban was shockingly unaware of what was going on in his own company. "How do you explain that?" she asked.
"I didn't know and I don't have an explanation," Cuban answered. "I can give you lots of reasons but they don't matter. What matters is it was my responsibility, it didn't happen and I have to be accountable for it." Those seven words--What matters is it was my responsibility--are a great example of what makes Cuban who he is. Let's not have a lengthy conversation about why I didn't get the job done. Let's agree that I failed and let's talk about how we fix this.
3. He didn't wait.
Cuban could have waited for the NBA investigation to be completed to take action to fix the Mavericks' workplace culture. Many leaders might have done just that. A few days after the Sports Illustrated piece appeared, Cuban suspended Buddy Pittman, the company's long-time HR head who failed to act on multiple harassment complaints. In June, he suspended George Prokos, senior vice president of ticket sales. Prokos supervised Chris Hyde, who made inappropriate comments, kissed women against their will, and watched pornography while masturbating in the office, according to the NBA report. Also, although the maximum fine the league can impose is $2.5 million, Cuban agreed to donate $10 million to organizations that support women's leadership and fight domestic violence.
Most important, a week after the SI piece appeared, Cuban hired Cynthia Marshall as the Mavericks new CEO. An African-American and former chief diversity officer at AT&T, Marshall is now the first female African-American CEO in the league. She's also known for standing her ground in tough situations.
One of her first acts was to promote some women into leadership positions--there had been none before her arrival. In her first public appearance as Maverick's CEO, she said this about sexual harassment in the team's office: "I know a lot of this is in the past, and let me make it clear--if it's in the present, it won't stay. Because my brand is attached to it now."
4. He expressed empathy.
Cuban, naturally, has apologized repeatedly for the toxic culture at the Mavericks' business office. In fact, when Nichols began her interview by asking for his reaction to the NBA report, he said:
"First, just an apology to the women involved, the women that in a couple of cases were assaulted. And not just to them but their families, because this is not something that just is an incident and then it's over. It stays with people and it stays with families. I'm just sorry I didn't see."
That expressed at least some understanding of the effects of sexual harassment, but an almost tearful Cuban dug deeper into those feelings when he described his meeting with Mavericks employees right after the SI story appeared.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this was happening right underneath me. The pain that people went through, the pain that people shared with me as this happened, the tears that I saw. It hurt. And the way I felt was nothing compared to the way they felt."
There are those who say he got off easy, that a $10 million donation means little to a multi-billionaire, and that he should have gotten a six-month suspension. Given the severity and length of the abuses at the Mavericks business office, a suspension would have been a reasonable consequence for the team's owner. It didn't happen because Cuban said the right things, but even more because he backed up those statements with swift and concrete actions that will completely change the company for the future. Those quick responses saved him and his team from what could have been much, much worse.