Trends in ethics and governance

Sep 13, 2019
Penelope Kenny outlines the ethics and governance issues that will likely be under the spotlight in 2017.

As the new year takes off, social media is overflowing with reflections on the past year and learnings for 2017. Thoughts on governance and ethics take the long view and it is so delightfully tempting to make predictions. I propose to look at trends for 2017 based on recent developments, with consideration on where the trends may lead our thinking in 2017. This article addresses corporate governance and the ethics agenda. It attempts to identify trends and issues which professionals are likely to see unfold in 2017.

Observations from the business of corporate governance

Intense activity from legislators and enforcers continues apace. There have been recent updates to legislation; publications on corporate culture, corporate governance and stewardship; and Government requests for corporate governance reform. Of high impact and concern for individual directors and boards are:
 
  • The broadening of directors’ responsibilities;
  • The roles and duties of directors being more thoroughly defined;
  • The inclusion of ethics and culture in more corporate governance conversations; and
  • The conversation between corporation and the State.

These observations are based on new Irish legislation codifying directors’ responsibilities and recent reports from the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) in the UK. There is also heightened interest in ethics at the core of corporate governance conversations and this is evidenced in the observations contained in the FRC’s 2016 report entitled Corporate Culture and the Role of Boards, which is discussed further below.

Directors are now more specifically accountable than before following the codification of directors’ duties and responsibilities in the Companies Act 2014. The new Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies, which was published in August 2016, makes directors specifically responsible for all internal controls: financial, operational, compliance and risk management. Previously, directors specifically reported only on the financial controls and the broader responsibilities were implicit.

Corporate culture is also being defined as an area of specific responsibility for directors. Last July, the FRC published Corporate Culture and the Role of Boards and this interesting document comments that strong governance underpins a healthy culture. It also states that boards should demonstrate good practice in the boardroom and promote good governance throughout the business. The report examines some thought-provoking questions:

  • How can the board influence and shape culture?
  • How does the board bring corporate values to life?
  • How can the board build trust with stakeholders?
  • How can boards assess, measure and monitor culture?
The report suggests that the tone from the top determines organisational culture and furthermore, boards should assess the culture and determine indicators thereof. The board is therefore responsible for the culture, values and ethical standards in their organisations. This gives directors the very broad responsibility of not only setting the culture and values, but also of measuring and assessing organisational culture.

The report requests that investors and other stakeholders engage constructively to build respect and trust, and work with companies to achieve long-term value. Investors therefore need to consider carefully how their behaviour can affect the behaviour of the company and understand how their motivations drive company incentives.

As board members, a brighter light is being shone on our broad responsibilities to the organisation and its stakeholders. We are also charged with the ongoing quest for effective measures of corporate culture and the implementation of corporate values throughout the organisation.

Corporate and individual ethics

In practice, the role of the board in “bringing values to life” is problematic. 61.5% of boards do not regularly make ethics and culture a full board agenda item according to the FRC’s report.

Corporate values and ethics have been keywords in lamenting the recent large corporate scandals, which continue unabated at home and abroad. Media reporting focuses not only on corporate governance and the board, but on the ethical standards of the board and the individual directors.

In an article published by Reuters last September entitled “Wells Fargo scandal reignites the debate about big bank culture”, it was reported that two former Wells Fargo employees filed a class action in California seeking $2.6 billion or more for workers who tried to meet aggressive sales quotas without engaging in fraud and were later demoted, forced to resign or fired. “Wells Fargo knew that their unreasonable quotas were driving these unethical behaviours that were used to fraudulently increase their stock price and benefit the CEO at the expense of the low level employees,” the lawsuit said. All this was reported in The Guardian in September 2016.

Closer to home, Fintan O’Toole expressed his outrage in the Irish Times on 2 January 2017: “The appalling scandal in which the banks deceived at least 15,000 of their customers into moving from tracker mortgages to considerably higher interest rates, often at dreadful personal as well as financial cost. It is clear that this defrauding of customers was systematic and deliberate. It operated in 15 banks – essentially the entire Irish system – and so far as we know there is not one case of a “mistake” favouring the customer. It raises in the starkest way exactly what [Matthew] Elderfield was talking about: individual accountability for misselling and overcharging”.

Apart from the human misery which we as a society are accepting, what this means for Ireland is that – despite our high levels of compliance and regulation – we have not created corporate and individual accountability nor a culture of ethical behaviour in our institutions. There is much to be done to align corporate culture and individual ethical standards. In Leading with Integrity: A Practical Guide to Business Ethics, Ros O’Shea firmly positions corporate ethics as the responsibility of the individual directors on the board. She links individual leadership values to the values which filter down through the organisation. This conversation is likely to gain momentum in 2017 with ongoing lawsuits and as we continue to further review, question and discuss our ethical guidelines and our own professional ethics.

Corporate governance reform

We can expect further corporate governance reform from the UK. Prime Minister Theresa May states that: “for people to retain faith in capitalism and free markets, big business must earn and keep the trust and confidence of their customers, employees and the wider public”. This quote is part of her introduction to Corporate Governance Reform: Green Paper 2016, which sets out a new approach to strengthen big business through better corporate governance. In the foreword, the UK Secretary of State, Greg Clark, summarises that “the green paper seeks views on three areas where we want to consider options for updating our corporate governance framework: first, on shareholder influence on executive pay, which has grown much faster over the last two decades than pay generally and than typical corporate performance; second, on whether there are measures that could increase the connection between boards of directors and other groups with an interest in corporate performance such as employees and small suppliers; and third, whether some of the features of corporate governance that have served us well in our listed companies should be extended to the largest privately-held companies at a time in which different types of ownership are more common”. Certainly the thinking in the UK, surmised from this report, indicates that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is left far behind, and society and democracy are not separate from, but are an integral part of, the values and actions of corporations. The wider societal responsibilities of companies and boards are under scrutiny. There is a recognition, certainly in the UK, of companies’ responsibilities to employees, customers, suppliers and wider society.

Diversity

Diversity on boards remains an area of huge interest for researchers and policy-makers. We are starting to accept the causal link between board diversity and better profitability. The green paper referred to above suggests that board composition should better reflect the demographics of employees and customers. Implicit in that statement is a board more representative of the community it serves. According to a McKinsey report published in September 2016, workplace diversity would improve gross domestic product (GDP) in the UK: “Bridging the UK gender gap in work has the potential to create an extra £150 billion on top of business-as-usual GDP forecasts in 2025, and could translate into 840,000 additional female employees. In this scenario, every one of the United Kingdom’s 12 regions has the potential to gain 5-8% incremental GDP”.

Robert Swannell, Chairman of Marks & Spencer, is quoted in the Hampton-Alexander Review of FTSE Women Leaders as saying: “I certainly believe having more diverse boards and senior teams is right and brings better perspectives, challenge and outcomes. It is right for business to reflect the world in which we operate and so we should just get on and do it”.

Adam Smith’s support for maximising profits by harnessing employee expertise is replaced by boards, executives and management addressing and including the concerns of all stakeholders in the corporate world.

Stakeholder engagement

Considering the FRC statement below, directors are being charged with aligning the interests of business and society as part of their corporate governance responsibility: “We share the objective of wider stakeholder engagement by companies and are considering how corporate governance principles can best meet the demands of all stakeholders or be amended to do so. We look forward to responding to the Government’s consultation later this year and will propose measures to realign the interests of business and society… the FRC supports the need for change in the relationship between business and society. As the guardian of the UK Corporate Governance and Stewardship Codes, the FRC is keen to explore how it can ensure governance and investment are more closely aligned with the broad public interest”.

This statement goes way beyond the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes which corporations heretofore were content with. Corporations are now charged with holding obligations to all stakeholders and being accountable to society as a whole. Similarly, directors are therefore held to account in relation to their obligations to all stakeholders. The UK Stewardship Code, while not updated since 2012, is under continuous review for its impact and implementation.

Directors: some key concerns

The broadening and better definition of the role and responsibility of directors is a likely interest area for the future as directors are increasingly responsible for a much wider range of legislation and compliance. Recent surveys show that role clarity, complexity, sustainability, changing business models, corporate culture and business reputation in the community are key concerns.

Recent research undertaken by Chartered Accountants Ireland, published in the October 2016 edition of Accountancy Ireland and written by Mary Halton, suggests that role clarity in the boardroom is a driving factor in board effectiveness. It states: “In theory, this should be a relatively straightforward issue, particularly in light of the significant legal, regulatory and good practice guidance available. In practice, however, boards and their members face a number of challenges in delineating roles and ensuring that these are consistently understood by all”.

Increasing complexity and the time commitment involved in non-executive directors’ roles is the key finding from a survey by the Institute of Directors in Ireland of 385 of its members in 2016. The Institute of Directors surveyed non-executive directors from private state and public boards. The Australian Institute of Company Directors, meanwhile, surveyed its members in December 2016 on the issues most likely to keep them “awake at night”. The results were identified as follows in order of importance:
 
  • Sustainability and long-term growth prospects;
  • Structural change or changing business models;
  • Corporate culture;
  • Business reputation in the community; and
  • Legal and regulatory compliance.
Directors are not only showing interest in the business environment which delivers profits, but also showing an increased self-consciousness about themselves as directors and their roles and responsibilities. Formalising this trend, the board self-assessment questionnaires mandated by the Code of Practice for State Bodies 2016 requires boards and the audit and risk committees of state boards to self-assess for effectiveness.

Corporation and the state

In 2016, we saw the rise of a populist, anti-establishment voter. In Ireland, the water charges were an example. The tussle between states and corporations was exposed with the Apple Inc’s taxes and Deutsche Bank’s fines, both of which resulted in a dialogue between European and American legislative and tax authorities.

As our corporations change their goals and purpose and our governments struggle with the corporate environment, this tectonic abrasion between corporations and governments looks set to continue.

Conclusion

Corporate governance reform is under way in the UK, and indeed in Ireland, against a background of government-led reforms. There is a corporate interest in being more responsible and more state-like. This suggests that the lines between corporation and state may be blurring. Boards are under pressure to represent a more diverse opinion and to mirror the communities which they serve.

Meanwhile, these communities are becoming more vocal. Peter Cosgrove of CPL showed the recent Chartered Accountants Tech Forum how employees at Mozilla effectively fired their CEO, Brendan Eich, through social media pressure, which looks remarkably similar to a form of popular voting. (Eich maintained a public stance against gay marriage in 2014, and employees disagreed).

Similarly, the US elections were beleaguered with accusations of corporations wielding influence on the outcome via large funding for the candidates. Certainly the future lies in greater regulation of corporations and greater expectations of corporate governance standards. This is occurring at a time when corporations are gathering more power, money and influence than sovereign states and at a time when the workplace is becoming more transparent and more democratised.

Chartered Accountants are charged as professionals and often as board members to navigate in this increasingly political space – not just to direct and govern, but also to influence, guide and comment on compliance and regulation. The duties and responsibilities of board directors require more professionalism and more knowledge. We know our responsibilities do not increase or decrease with the size of the organisations we direct and govern, nor with remuneration for these roles, yet those responsibilities are expanding.

The boundaries of the study and discipline of corporate governance itself are widening and shifting. We have seen from the UK Prime Minister’s comments on the reform of corporate governance that better corporate governance is seen as a driver for such issues as corporate responsibility, improved profits and more stakeholder engagement to name but a few. Interesting opportunities abound.

Penelope Kenny FCA is author of ‘Corporate Governance for the Irish Arts Sector’, published by Chartered Accountants Ireland. 

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