CEO Bad Behavior

We Studied 38 Incidents of CEO Bad Behavior and Measured Their Consequences

Most boards of directors know what to do when their CEO is accused of illegal activity. They conduct an independent investigation, and if the allegations are verified, they take corrective action. In most cases, the CEO is terminated.

It is much less obvious what actions the board should take when the CEO is accused of behavior that is questionable but not illegal. For example, if the CEO makes controversial public statements, has personal relations with an employee or contractor, or develops a reputation for being rude, overbearing, or verbally combative, the board must decide what merits investigation. It must also decide whether to address matters publicly or privately. These decisions become even more important when CEO misbehavior is picked up by the media, bringing unwanted public attention that can have an impact on the organization and its reputation.

To examine how corporations handle allegations of CEO misbehavior, we conducted an extensive review of news media between 2000 and 2015. We identified 38 incidents where a CEO’s behavior garnered a meaningful level of media coverage (defined as more than 10 unique news references). We categorized these incidents as follows:

  • 34% involved reports of a CEO lying to the board or shareholders over personal matters, such as a drunk driving offense, undisclosed criminal record, falsification of credentials, or other behavior.
  • 21% involved a sexual affair or relations with a subordinate, contractor, or consultant.
  • 16% involved CEOs making use of corporate funds in a manner that is questionable but not strictly illegal.
  • 16% involved CEOs engaging in objectionable personal behavior or using abusive language.
  • 13% involved CEOs making public statements that are offensive to customers or social groups.

Examining these incidents in detail, five main findings stood out:

The impact of misbehavior on corporate reputation is significant and long-lasting. The incidents that we identified were cited in over 250 news stories each, on average. Furthermore, media coverage was persistent, with references made to the CEO’s actions up to an average of 4.9 years after initial occurrence. For example, news stories today continue to reference former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney’s odd behavior of walking around the company’s offices in his underwear, even though it was first reported over 10 years ago. Boards should not expect allegations of misbehavior to disappear quickly.

Shareholders generally (but do not always) react negatively to news of misconduct. Among the companies in our sample, share prices declined by a market-adjusted 3.1% (1.1% median) over the three-day trading period around the initial news story. For example, Hewlett-Packard stock fell almost 9% following reports that former CEO Mark Hurd had a personal relationship with a female contractor. However, shareholder reactions are not uniformly negative. Of the 38 companies in our sample. 11 exhibited positive stock price returns when CEO misbehavior made the news. Perhaps unexpectedly, there is no discernible relationship between the type of behavior and stock price reaction.

Most companies take an active approach in responding to allegations of misconduct. In 84% of cases, the company issued a press release or formal statement on the matter. In 71% of cases, a spokesperson provided direct commentary to the press. Board members were much less likely to speak to the media, making direct comments only 37% of the time. In over half of cases (55%), the board of directors was known to initiate an independent review or investigation. The board is most likely to announce an independent review in cases of potential financial misconduct. However, the willingness of an individual director to discuss the matter directly with the press does not appear to be associated with the type of behavior involved or the “severity” of the CEO’s actions.

Corporate punishment for CEO misbehavior is inconsistent. In 58% of incidents, the CEO was eventually terminated for his or her actions. Questionable financial practices was the only category of behavior that almost uniformly resulted in termination; all other behaviors resulted in both outcomes (termination and retention) across our sample. Even behavior as straightforward as falsifying information on a resume was treated inconsistently by different boards. In a third of cases (32%), the board took actions other than termination in response to CEO misconduct, such as stripping the CEO of the chair title, removing the CEO from the board, amending the corporate code of conduct, reducing or eliminating the CEO’s bonus, other director resignation, and other changes to board structure or composition.

CEO misbehavior can reverberate across the organization. Approximately one-third of companies faced additional fallout from the CEO’s actions, including loss of a major client, federal investigation, shareholder or federal lawsuit, or shareholder action such as a proxy battle. Forty-five percent of companies in the sample experienced a significant unrelated governance issue following the event, such as an accounting restatement, unrelated lawsuit, shareholder action, or bankruptcy. As for the CEOs themselves, three were reported to resign from other boards because of their actions. Two CEOs who were terminated were subsequently rehired by the same company. We found that many continued in their position or were hired by other corporations or investment groups; otherwise there was no notable news of what happened to them professionally.

For boards of directors, the lessons are clear: For better or worse, the CEO is often the face of the corporation. When the CEO engages in misconduct, the board has an obligation to investigate the matter, take proactive steps to ensure that it is properly dealt with, and — most important — ensure that corporate reputation, culture, and long-term performance are not damaged.


David Larcker is the James Irvin Miller Professor of Accounting and Senior Faculty at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. He is a co-author of the books Corporate Governance Matters and A Real Look at Real World Corporate Governance.


Brian Tayan is a researcher at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. He is a co-author of the books Corporate Governance Matters and A Real Look at Real World Corporate Governance.

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