Perhaps during the shutdown, when you’re watching more TV than you might like to admit, you’ve seen some new commercials a bit like this: a happy face-masked employee on the line or in a lab displaying all the sanitizing and other pandemic-related safety precautions that the company is taking to protect the employee’s work environment. Cut to the employee at home with giggling youngsters, illustrating the importance of safety measures at work to protect family at home. Or a company emphasizing the value of its employees in keeping the country moving forward or its employees in lab coats that persevere to find a cure no matter what. Or a shot of employees performing the essential service of implementing safety measures for customers. What’s the point? To drive home that a company that recognizes the value of its employees and manifests such concern for their safety and welfare is a company worth buying from. This new emphasis on employee welfare as a corporate selling point may have been sparked by COVID-19 but, at another level, it may well reflect broader concerns that have been marinating for a while—about the essential value of previously overlooked elements of the workforce, about physical risk allocation, about economic inequity and, to some extent, even about social justice.
How to address some of these concerns related to the workforce—particularly economic inequity—is the subject of a new paper co-authored by former Delaware Chief Justice Leo Strine, “Toward Fair Gainsharing and a Quality Workplace for Employees: How a Reconceived Compensation Committee Might Help Make Corporations More Responsible Employers and Restore Faith in American Capitalism.” The goal is to reimagine the compensation committee so that it becomes the board committee “most deeply engaged in all aspects of the company’s relationship with its workforce,” from retaining and motivating the workforce to achieve the company’s business objectives, to overseeing that the company fulfills its obligations as a responsible employer and, most of all, to positioning the company to “restore fair gainsharing.”
In his annual letter to CEOs in January, CEO Laurence Fink announced that BlackRock was putting “sustainability at the center of [its] investment approach,” and made clear that companies needed to step up their games when it comes to sustainability disclosure. (See this PubCo post.) Even in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, both BlackRock and State Street have issued statements indicating their intention to continue to center their stewardship on the demand for additional disclosure on key ESG and sustainability issues such as climate change risk and human capital management. For those seeking to improve their ESG reporting, a managing director of consultant Protiviti offers a number of recommendations in this Forbes article.
What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on companies’ sustainability efforts? On the one hand, as discussed in this article from the WSJ, C-suite occupants have been “trying to figure out what they’re willing to throw overboard as the economic storm spawned by the pandemic is swamping their ships. Businesses that were planning to help save the world are now simply saving themselves….History suggests this new [sustainability] paradigm is probably on the back burner.” Even BlackRock, which had previously announced that it was putting “sustainability at the center of [its] investment approach,” acknowledged in April, that “certain non-financial projects like sustainability reports had been ‘de-prioritized’ due to COVID-19. ‘We recognize that in the near-term companies may need to reallocate resources to address immediate priorities in these uncertain times.’ BlackRock’s report stated. BlackRock said it would ‘expect a return to companies focusing on material sustainability management and reporting in due course.’”
On the other hand, however, as this article from Financial Executives International observed, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted “the very issues that have been driving ESG concerns—managing resources, sustainability, community impact and employee well-being.” While it might have been “easy to assume the current crisis may permanently shift attention away from environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns as management teams grapple with existential issues,” it turned out that “the very actions companies are taking will likely bring them closer to the multi-stakeholder, long-term value principles that lie at the heart of ESG.” How are companies viewing the effects?
To gain insight into the new governance challenges faced by boards over the next few months as companies begin a reopening and recovery process—hopefully a permanent one—the NACD undertook a pulse survey of 306 directors across multiple industries, conducted between May 14 and May 21. The survey revealed that directors expect the COVID-19 pandemic to have lasting effects—on business strategy, on the nature of work and on board-management interactions.
In May, the Senate passed the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, which would amend SOX to impose certain requirements on a public company that is audited by a registered public accounting firm with a branch or office located in a foreign jurisdiction that the PCAOB is “unable to inspect or investigate completely because of a position taken by an authority in the foreign jurisdiction.” And, as previously discussed, Nasdaq has also proposed rule changes aimed at addressing the same issue. (See this PubCo post.) A number of key players are speaking up to endorse these actions.
All the focus on COVID-19 disclosures notwithstanding, the SEC has not taken its collective eyes off the basics. This Order discusses settled charges against Argo Group International Holdings, Ltd. related to its failure to disclose in its proxy statements—for five years—millions in personal expenses and perks paid to its CEO, such as personal use of corporate aircraft and cars, “personal services provided by Argo employees and watercraft-related costs.” Not to mention that the CEO was able to approve his own expense reports. According to the press release, Enforcement continues “to focus on whether companies are fully disclosing compensation paid to their top executives and have appropriate internal controls in place to ensure that shareholders receive information to which they are entitled.”
It should come as no surprise that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of virtual shareholder meetings this proxy season has jumped—off the page. But will this year’s broad experience leave companies wanting more? And will investor groups, which have tended to be skeptical of the virtual-only format, begin to view VSMs more favorably?
Is EBITDAC a thing? Yes, according to the FT. This article describes the use of a new non-GAAP metric: “earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortisation—and coronavirus.” Applying the new metric, a few companies have actually added back profits they contend they would have earned but for the mandatory lockdowns resulting from COVID-19. Hmmm. While, according to the article, the add-back has “bemused some observers,” it does raise the question: how should companies employ non-GAAP financial measures (NGFMs) in the context of COVID-19? How should audit committees conduct oversight of the use of NGFMs that have been adjusted for coronavirus-related effects? Auditors weigh in.
At a meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee last week, the Committee voted to make recommendations to the SEC on three topics: accounting and financial disclosure; ESG (environmental, social and governance) disclosure; and disclosure effectiveness. The ESG recommendation concluded that “the time has come for the SEC to address this issue,” and it should be no surprise that there was some controversy—including some dissenting votes—surrounding that recommendation. While recommendations from SEC advisory committees often hold some sway with the commissioners, given the long-held views of the current commissioners, it seems highly unlikely that the ESG recommendation will have much traction—at least not in the near term. The recommendations come as the membership of the committee undergoes a substantial shift as many members time out on their appointments. The recommendations are discussed below.
Yesterday, once again without an open meeting, the SEC voted (with a dissent from Commissioner Allison Lee) to adopt amendments to the requirements for financial statements relating to acquisitions and dispositions of businesses. According to the press release, the amendments are intended to improve disclosure of financial information, facilitate more timely access to capital and reduce the complexity and costs to prepare the disclosure. The final amendments were adopted largely as proposed, but with some modifications to virtually every component of the proposal. Notably, as adopted, the final amendments modify the rules for determining whether an acquisition or disposition is significant and require companies to file the financial statements of acquired businesses for only up to the two most recent fiscal years, instead of the current three. In addition, the existing adjustment criteria for pro forma financial statements will be replaced with simplified requirements to depict the accounting for the transaction and, in response to some controversy over the proposal, provide the option to “depict synergies and dis-synergies of the acquisitions and dispositions for which pro forma effect is being given.” The final amendments will become effective on January 1, 2021. Companies may early adopt the final amendments, but only in their entirety.