With the SEC presumably about to adopt enhanced disclosure requirements for human capital next week (see this PubCo post), this new report from the World Economic Forum in Davos, prepared in collaboration with consultant Willis Towers Watson, offers a timely new framework for valuing human capital. While the COVID-19 pandemic has increased our focus on the value of the workforce as an asset, this shift in perspective is not entirely new: SEC Chair Jay Clayton has long recognized that, while, historically, companies’ most valuable assets were plant, property and equipment, and human capital was primarily a cost, now, human capital often represents “an essential resource and driver of performance for many companies. This is a shift from human capital being viewed, at least from an income statement perspective, as a cost.” But he also recognized that developing a metric around this issue was not so easy. (See this PubCo post.) The pandemic, however, serves as a springboard: the new WEF report contends that, as “companies look to reset for the new world of work that emerges from the pandemic, they would benefit from an approach that values talent as a key asset that contributes to an organization’s sustained value creation. This calls for the development of a new human capital accounting framework, which would enable a company’s board and management to track how their investment in people is augmenting the firm’s human capital, and support the delivery of better outcomes for the business, the workforce and the wider community.” The report seeks to offer that framework. Whether it actually catches on is another question.
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?
In this article, the executive director of the ESG Center and the managing director, ESG, of The Conference Board identify seven key areas for board focus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, essentially an update, given today’s practices and today’s crisis, of the Board’s 2009 report in the wake of the financial crisis. At the end of the day, while the pandemic has led to “increased responsibility, scrutiny, and uncertainty” for boards, the authors advocate that boards address those demands with “increased humanity. This is a time for board members to acknowledge their own abilities and limitations, as well as those of others; to act with increased understanding, compassion, and respect toward each other; and to call upon the untapped reserves of resilience and resourcefulness that abide in us all.”
Consultant Russell Reynolds Associates opens this report on 2020 corporate governance trends by observing that, “[f]or the first time, in 2020, we see the focus on the ‘E’ and the ‘S’ of environment, social and governance (ESG) as the leading trend globally, including in the United States, where it traditionally has not received as much attention by boards.” That conclusion—that sustainability has now ascended to the forefront of corporate governance trends—is reinforced by this year’s annual letter to CEOs from BlackRock CEO, Laurence Fink, announcing initiatives to put “sustainability at the center of [BlackRock’s] investment approach,” as well as the Business Roundtable’s new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which outlined a “modern standard for corporate responsibility” that makes a commitment to all stakeholders. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) For its report, RRA interviewed over 40 governance professionals, including institutional and activist investors, pension fund managers and proxy advisors to “identify the corporate governance trends that will impact boards and directors in 2020.” Those trends are summarized below.
by Cydney Posner This year, in his annual letter to corporate CEOs, Laurence D. Fink, CEO of asset manager BlackRock, challenges companies to address the impact of significant political, economic, societal and technological changes on their current strategies for long-term value creation: “As BlackRock engages with your company this year, […]