Friday, October 13, 2017
Earlier this week, my two-year old daughter was in the pediatric ICU with a virus that attacked her lungs. We spent two nights at The Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt (“Vanderbilt Children’s). Thankfully, she was released Wednesday afternoon and is doing well. Unfortunately, many of the children on her floor had been in the hospital for weeks or months and were not afforded such a quick recovery. There cannot be many places more sad than the pediatric ICU.
Since returning home, I confirmed that Vanderbilt Children’s is a nonprofit organization, as I suspected. I do wonder whether the hospital would be operated the same if it were a benefit corporation or as a traditional corporation.
Some of the decisions made at the hospital seems like they would have been indefensible from a shareholder perspective, if the hospital had been for-profit. Vanderbilt Children’s has a captive market, with no serious competitors that I know of in the immediate area. Yet, the hospital doesn’t charge for parking. If they did, I don’t think it would impact anyone’s decision to choose them because, again, there aren’t really other options, and the care is the important part anyway. The food court was pretty reasonably priced, and they probably could have charged double without seriously impacting demand; the people at the hospital valued time with their children more than a few dollars. The hospital was beautifully decorated with art aimed at children – for example, with a big duck on the elevator ceiling, which my daughter absolutely loved. There were stars on the ceiling of the hospital rooms, cartoons on TVs in every room, etc. All of this presumably cost more than a drab room, and perhaps it was all donated, but assuming it actually cost more, I am not sure those things would result in any financial return on investment.
As we have discussed many times on this blog, even in the traditional for-profit setting, the business judgment rule likely protects the decisions of the board of directors, even if the promised ROI seems poor. But at what point – especially when the board knows there will be no return on the investment at all - is it waste? (Note: Question sparked by a discussion that Stefan Padfied, Josh Fershee, and I had in Knoxville after a session at the UTK business law conference this year). And, in any event, the Dodge and eBay cases may lead to some doubt in the way a case may play out. And even if the law is highly unlikely to enforce shareholder wealth maximization, the norm in traditional for-profit corporations may lead to directorial decisions that we find problematic as a society, especially in a hospital setting.
Now, maybe the Hippocratic Oath, community expectations, and various regulations make it so nonprofit and forprofit hospitals operate similarly. As a father of a patient, however, even as a free market inclined professor, I would prefer hospitals to be nonprofit and clearly focused on care first. Also, some forprofit hospitals are supposedly considering going the benefit corporation route, which may be a step in the right direction – at least they have an obligation to consider various stakeholders (even if, currently, the statutory enforcement mechanisms are extremely weak) and at least there are some reporting requirements (even if , currently, reporting compliance is miserable low in the states I have examined and the statutory language is painfully vague).
I am not sure I have ever been in a situation where I would have paid everything I had, and had no other good options for the immediate need, and yet I still did not feel taken advantage of by the organization. There is much more that could be said on these issues, but I do wonder whether organizational form was important here. And, if so, what is the solution? Require hospitals to be nonprofits (or at least benefit corporations, if those statutes were amended to add more teeth)?
Friday, October 6, 2017
I assume most readers are familiar with Stonyfield Yogurt, and perhaps a bit of its story, but I think the podcast goes far beyond what is generally known.
The main thing that stuck out in the podcast was how many struggles Stonyfield faced. Most of the companies featured on How I Built This struggle for a few months or even a few years, but Stonyfield seemed to face more than its share of challenges for well over a decade. The yogurt seemed pretty popular early on, but production, distribution, and cash flow problems haunted them. Stonyfield also had a tough time sticking with their organic commitment, abandoning organic for a few years when they outsourced production and couldn't convince the farmers to follow their practices. With friends and family members' patient investing (including Gary's mother and mother-in-law), Stonyfield finally found financial success after raising money for its own production facility, readopting organic, and finding broader distribution.
After about 20 years, Stonyfield sold the vast majority of the company to large multinational Group Danone. Gary explained that some investors were looking for liquidity and that he felt it was time to pay them back for their commitment. Gary was able to negotiate some control rights for himself (unspecified in the podcast) and stayed on as chairman. While this sale was a big payday for investors, it is unclear how much of the original commitment to the environment and community remained. Also, the podcast did not mention that Danone announced, a few months ago, that it would sell Stonyfield.
Personally, I am a fan of Stonyfield's yogurt and it will be interesting to follow their story under new ownership. I also think students and faculty members could benefit from listening to stories like this to remind us that success is rarely easy and quick.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
What keeps general counsels and compliance officers up at night? Here's what boards should be discussing
No one had a National Compliance Officer Day when I was in the job, but now it’s an official thing courtesy of SAI Global, a compliance consulting company. The mission of this one-year old holiday is to:
- Raise awareness about the importance of ethics and compliance in business and shine a spotlight on the people responsible for making it a reality.
- Provide resources to promote the wellness and well-being of ethics and compliance professionals so they can learn how to overcome stress and burnout.
- Grow the existing ethics and compliance community and help identify and guide the next generation of E&C advocates.
Although some may look at this skeptically as a marketing ploy, I’m all for this made-up holiday given what compliance officers have to deal with today.
Last Saturday, I spoke at the Business Law Professor Blog Conference at the University of Tennessee about corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility in the Trump/Pence era. During my presentation, I described the ideal audit committee meeting for a company that takes enterprise risk management seriously. My board agenda included: the impact of climate change and how voluntary and mandatory disclosures could change under the current EPA and SEC leadership; compliance budgetary changes; the rise of the whistleblower; the future of the DOJ’s Yates Memo and corporate cooperation after a recent statement by the Deputy Attorney General; SEC and DOJ enforcement priorities; data protection and cybersecurity; corporate culture and the risk of Google/Uber- type lawsuits; and sustainability initiatives and international governance disclosures. I will have a short essay in the forthcoming Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law but here are a few statistics that drove me to develop my model (and admittedly ambitious) agenda:
- According to an ACC survey of over 1,000 chief legal officers:
- 74% say ethics and compliance issues keep them up at night
- 77% handled at least one internal or external compliance-related investigation in their department
- 33% made policy changes in their organizations as a result of geopolitical events.
- 28% were targeted by regulators in the past two years
- Board members polled in September 2016 were most concerned about the following compliance issues:
- Regulatory changes and scrutiny may heighten
- Cyber threats
- Privacy/identity and information security risks
- Failure of corporate culture to encourage timely identification/escalation of significant risk issues
- During the 2017 proxy season, shareholders submitted 827 proposals (down from 916 in 2016):
- 112 related to proxy access,
- 87 related to political contributions and lobbying,
- 35 focused on board diversity (up from 28 in 2016),
- 34 proposals focused on discrimination or diversity-related issues (up from 16 in 2016),
- 69 proposals related to climate change (3 of those passed, including at ExxonMobil)
- 19 proposals focused on the gender pay gap (up from 13 in 2016)
General counsels are increasingly taking on more of a risk officer role in their companies, and compliance officers are in the thick of all of these issues. The government has also recently begun to hold compliance officers liable for complicity with company misdeeds. My advice- if it’s not against your company/school policy, take SCCE’s suggestion and hug your compliance officer. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Business leaders probably didn’t think the honeymoon would be over so fast. A CEO as President, a deregulation czar, billionaires in the cabinet- what could possibly go wrong?
When Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, resigned from one of the President’s business advisory councils because he didn’t believe that President Trump had responded appropriately to the tragic events in Charlottesville, I really didn’t think it would have much of an impact. I had originally planned to blog about How (Not) To Teach a Class on Startups, and I will next week (unless there is other breaking news). But yesterday, I decided to blog about Frazier, and to connect his actions to a talk I gave to UM law students at orientation last week about how CEOs talk about corporate responsibility but it doesn’t always make a difference. I started drafting this post questioning how many people would actually run to their doctors asking to switch their medications to or from Merck products because of Frazier’s stance on Charlottesville. Then I thought perhaps, Frazier’s stance would have a bigger impact on the millennial employees who will make up almost 50% of the employee base in the next few years. Maybe he would get a standing ovation at the next shareholder meeting. Maybe he would get some recognition other than an angry tweet from the President and lots of news coverage.
By yesterday afternoon, Under Armour’s CEO had also stepped down from the President’s business advisory council. That made my draft post a little more interesting. Would those customers care more or less about the CEO's position? By this morning, still more CEOs chose to leave the council after President Trump’s lengthy and surprising press conference yesterday. By that time, the media and politicians of all stripes had excoriated the President. This afternoon, the President disbanded his two advisory councils after a call organized by the CEO of Blackstone with his peers to discuss whether to proceed. Although Trump “disbanded” the councils, they had already decided to dissolve earlier in the day.
I’m not teaching Business Associations this semester, but this is a teachable moment, and not just for Con Law professors. What are the corporate governance implications? Should the CEOs have stayed on these advisory councils so that they could advise this CEO President on much needed tax, health care, immigration, infrastructure, trade, investment, and other reform or do Trump’s personal and political views make that impossible? Many of the CEOs who originally stayed on the councils believed that they could do more for the country and their shareholders by working with the President. Did the CEOs who originally resigned do the right thing for their conscience but the wrong thing by their shareholders? Did those who stayed send the wrong message to their employees in light of the Google diversity controversy? Did they think about the temperament of their board members or of the shareholder proposals that they had received in the past or that they were expecting when thinking about whether to stay or go?
Many professors avoid politics in business classes, and that’s understandable because there are enough issues with coverage and these are sensitive issues. But if you do plan to address them, please comment below or send an email to email@example.com.
August 16, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)
Sunday, August 6, 2017
My latest paper, The Inclusive Capitalism Shareholder Proposal, 17 U.C. Davis Bus. L.J. 147 (2017), is now available on Westlaw. Here is the abstract:
When it comes to the long-term well being of our society, it is difficult to overstate the importance of addressing poverty and economic inequality. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty famously argued that growing economic inequality is inherent in capitalist systems because the return to capital inevitably exceeds the national growth rate. Proponents of “Inclusive Capitalism” can be understood to respond to this issue by advocating for broadening the distribution of the acquisition of capital with the earnings of capital. This paper advances the relevant discussion by explaining how shareholder proposals may be used to increase understanding of Inclusive Capitalism, and thereby further the likelihood that Inclusive Capitalism will be implemented. In addition, even if the suggested proposals are rejected, the shareholder proposal process can be expected to facilitate a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Inclusive Capitalism, as well as foster useful new lines of communication for addressing both poverty and economic inequality.
August 6, 2017 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, CSR, Financial Markets, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Good morning from gorgeous Belize. I hope to see some of you this weekend at SEALS. A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the compliance course I recently taught. I received quite a few emails asking for my syllabus and teaching materials. I am still in the middle of grading but I thought I would provide some general advice for those who are considering teaching a similar course. I taught thinking about the priorities of current employers and the skills our students need.
1) Picking materials is hard- It's actually harder if you have actually worked in compliance, as I have, and still consult, as I do from time to time. I have all of the current compliance textbooks but didn't find any that suited my needs. Shameless plug- I'm co-authoring a compliance textbook to help fill the gap. I wanted my students to have the experience they would have if they were working in-house and had to work with real documents. I found myself either using or getting ideas from many primary source materials from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, the Institute of Privacy Professionals, DLA Piper, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizational Defendants, policy statements from various governmental entities in the US (the SEC, DOJ Banamex case, and state regulators), and abroad (UK Serious Frauds Office and Privacy Office). Students also compared CSR reports, looked at NGO materials, read the codes of conducts of the guest speakers who came in, and looked at 10-Ks, the Carbon Disclosure Project, and other climate change documents for their companies. I also had students watch YouTube videos pretending that they went to CLEs and had to write a memo to the General Counsel so that s/he could update the board on the latest developments in healthcare compliance and risk assessments.
2) This should be a 3-credit course for it to be an effective skills course- My grand vision was for guest speakers to come in on Mondays for an hour and then I would lecture for the remaining time or I would lecture for two hours on Monday and then students would have simulations on Wednesday.This never happened. Students became so engaged that the lecturers never finished in an hour. We were always behind. Simulations always ran over.
3) Don't give too much reading- I should have known better. I have now taught at three institutions at various tiers and at each one students have admitted- no, actually bragged- that they don't do the reading. Some have told me that they do the reading for my classes because I grade for class participation, but I could actually see for my compliance course how they could do reasonably well without doing all of the reading, which means that I gave too much. I actually deliberately provided more than they needed in some areas (especially in the data privacy area) because I wanted them to build a library in case they obtained an internship or job after graduation and could use the resources. When I started out in compliance, just knowing where to look was half the battle. My students have 50 state surveys in employment law, privacy and other areas that will at least give them a head start.
4) Grading is hard- Grading a skills course is inherently subjective and requires substantive feedback to be effective. 40% of the grade is based on a class project, which was either a presentation to the board of directors or a training to a group of employees. Students had their choice of topic and audience but had to stay within their industry and had the entire 6-week term to prepare. Should I give more credit to the team who trained the sales force on off-label marketing for pharmaceuticals because the class acting as the sales force (and I) were deliberately disrespectful (as some sales people would be in real life because this type of training would likely limit their commissions)? This made their training harder. Should I be tougher on the group that trained the bored board on AML, since one student presenter was in banking for years? I already know the answers to these rhetorical questions. On individual projects, I provide comments as though I am a general counsel, a board member, or a CEO depending on the assignment. This may mean that the commentary is "why should I care, tell me about the ROI up front." This is not language that law students are used to, but it's language that I have tried to instill throughout the course. I gave them various versions of the speech, "give me less kumbaya, we need to care about the slave labor in the factories, and less consumers care about company reputation, and more statistics and hard numbers to back it up." Some of you may have seen this recent article about United and the "non-boycott, which validates what I have been blogging about for years. If it had come out during the class, I would have made students read it because board members would have read it and real life compliance officers would have had to deal with it head on.
5) Be current but know when to stop- I love compliance and CSR. For the students, it's just a class although I hope they now love it too. I found myself printing out new materials right before class because I thought they should see this latest development. I'm sure that what made me think of myself as cutting edge and of the moment made me come across to them as scattered and disorganized because it wasn't on the syllabus.
6) Use guest speakers whenever possible- Skype them in if you have to. Nothing gives you credibility like having someone else say exactly what you have already said.
If you have any questions, let me know. I will eventually get back to those of you who asked for materials, but hopefully some of these links will help. If you are teaching a course or looking at textbook, send me feedback on them so that I can consider it as I work on my own. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next week, I will blog about how (not) to teach a class on legal issues for start ups, entrepreneurs, and small businesses, which I taught last semester.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
My colleague, Joan Heminway, yesterday posted Democratic Norms and the Corporation: The Core Notion of Accountability. She raises some interesting points (as usual), and she argues: "In my view, more work can be done in corporate legal scholarship to push on the importance of accountability as a corporate norm and explore further analogies between political accountability and corporate accountability."
I have not done a lot of reading in this area, but I am inclined to agree that it seems like an area that warrants more discussion and research. The post opens with some thought-provoking writing by Daniel Greenwood, including this:
Most fundamentally, corporate law and our major business corporations treat the people most analogous to the governed, those most concerned with corporate decisions, as mere helots. Employees in the American corporate law system have no political rights at all—not only no vote, but not even virtual representation in the boardroom legislature.
Those on the right, like Milton Friedman, argue that the shareholder-wealth-maximization requirement prohibits firms from acting in ways that benefit, say, local communities or the environment, at the expense of the bottom line. Those on the left, like Franken, argue that the duty to shareholders makes corporations untrustworthy and dangerous. They are both wrong.
August 1, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, July 14, 2017
I highly recommend Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry.
Set in rural Kentucky, Jayber Crow is a story about small town life, community, love/hate, sustainability, and industrialization. The main character, Jonah "Jayber" Crow loses both his parents and his Aunt and Uncle by the age of ten. He spends the next few years in an orphanage before obtaining a scholarship to a local college as a "pre-ministerial" student. Doubting his calling to the ministry, Jayber drops out and returns to his hometown. He serves as the town's only barber, and he also picks up jobs as the local grave digger and church janitor. Jayber narrates, in vivid detail, the exodus from the small town by the younger generation and the invasion of large-scale, profit-focused, corporate farming.
The author, Wendell Berry, warns that "persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise 'understand' [this book] will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers" so I will simply end with a few of my favorite quotes below. I think one of the reasons I so liked this book is because it reminded me of my family's property and of my maternal grandfather, who lived at a pace unknown to most of us and who worked the land with his hands and simple tools.
"You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out--perhaps a little at a time." (54)
"The university thought of itself as a place of freedom for thought and study and experimentation, and maybe it was, in a way. But it was an island too, a floating or a flying island. It was preparing people from the world of the past for the world of the future, and what was missing was the world of the present, where every body was living its small, short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life." (71)
"Instead of sitting out and talking from porch to porch on the summer evenings, the people sat inside rooms filled with the flickering blue light of the greater world." (258)
"We were, as we said again, making war in order to make peace We were destroying little towns in order to save them. We were killing children in order that children might sleep peacefully in their beds without fear." (294)
"On those weekends, the river is disquieted from morning to night by people resting from their work. This resting involves traveling at great speed, first on the roads and then on the river. The people are in an emergency to relax." (331)
"The Economy does not take people's freedom by force, which would be against its principles, for it is very humane. It buys their freedom, pays for it, and then persuades its money back again with shoddy goods and the promise of freedom." (332)
Update: Here is a trailer for a new film on Wendell Berry, Look & See. Powerful, especially if you grew up in a rural place that is now being "developed," or if have seen beautiful landscapes that you love ruined. "Those who had wanted to go home could never get there now...."
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Prior to joining academia, I served as a compliance officer, deputy GC, and chief privacy officer for a Fortune 500 company. I had to learn everything on the job by attending webinars and conferences and reading client alerts. Back then, I would have paid a law school graduate a competitive salary to work in my compliance group, but I couldn’t find anyone who had any idea about what the field entailed.
The world has changed. Now many schools (including mine) offer relevant coursework for this JD-advantage position. I just finished teaching a summer skills course in compliance and corporate social responsibility, and I’m hoping that I have encouraged at least a few of the students to consider it as a viable career path. Compliance is one of the fastest growing corporate positions in the country, and the number of compliance personnel has doubled in the past 6 years. Still, many business-minded law students don’t consider it in the same vein as they consider jobs with Big Law.
This summer, my twelve students met twice a week for two hours at 7:30 pm. In the compressed six-week course, they did the following:
- Heard from compliance officers and outside counsel for public companies and government entities
- Read the same kinds of primary source material that compliance officers and counsel read in practice (such as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the Yates Memo, deferred prosecution agreements, and materials from the EU on the upcoming changes to data protection regulation)
- Compared and contrasted CSR reports from WalMart and Target, and reviewed the standards for the Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Global Compact
- Advocated before a board as a worker safety NGO for a company doing business in Bangladesh
- Served as a board member during a meeting (using actual board profiles)
- Wrote a reflection paper on the ideal role and reporting structure of compliance officers
- Considered top employment law and data protection risks for fictional companies to which they were assigned
- Looked at the 10-Ks and CDP report for climate change disclosures after examining the role of socially responsible investors and shareholder resolutions
- Drafted industry-specific risk assessment questionnaires
- Drafted three code of conduct policies
- Wrote a short memo to the GC on health care compliance and the DOJ Yates memo
- Did a role play during a crisis management simulation acting as either a board member, SEC or DOJ lawyer, the CEO, compliance officer or GC and
- Conducted a 20-minute board presentation or employee compliance training (worth the biggest part of the grade).
Perhaps the most gratifying part of the semester came during tonight’s final presentations. The students could pick any topic relevant to the fictional company that they were assigned. They chose to discuss child labor in the supply chain for a clothing company, off-label marketing in the pharmaceutical industry, anti-money laundering compliance in a large bank, and environmental and employment law issues for a consumer product conglomerate. Even though I was not their BA professor, I was thrilled to hear them talk about the Caremark duty, the duty of care, and the business judgment rule in their presentations. Most important, the students have left with a portfolio of marketable skills and real-world knowledge in a fast growing field.
If you have your own ideas on how to teach compliance and CSR, please leave them below or email me at email@example.com.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Yesterday, during a conversation with a law student about whether corporate social responsibility is a mere marketing ploy to fool consumers, the student described her conflict with using Uber. She didn’t like what she had read in the news about Uber’s workplace culture issues, sex harassment allegations, legal battles with its drivers, and leadership vacuum. The student, who is studying for the bar, probably didn’t even know that the company had even more PR nightmares just over the past ten days--- the termination of twenty employees after a harassment investigation; the departure of a number of executives including the CEO’s right hand man; the CEO’s “indefinite” leave of absence to “mourn his mother” following a scathing investigative report by former Attorney General Eric Holder; and the resignation of a board member who made a sexist remark during a board meeting (ironically) about sexism at Uber. She clearly hadn’t read Ann Lipton’s excellent post on Uber on June 17th.
Around 1:00 am EST, the company announced that the CEO had resigned after five of the largest investors in the $70 billion company issued a memo entitled “Moving Uber Forward.” The memo was not available as of the time of this writing. According to the New York Times:
The investors included one of Uber’s biggest shareholders, the venture capital firm Benchmark, which has one of its partners, Bill Gurley, on Uber’s board. The investors made their demand for Mr. Kalanick to step down in a letter delivered to the chief executive while he was in Chicago, said the people with knowledge of the situation.
… the investors wrote to Mr. Kalanick that he must immediately leave and that the company needed a change in leadership. Mr. Kalanick, 40, consulted with at least one Uber board member, and after long discussions with some of the investors, he agreed to step down. He will remain on Uber’s board of directors.
This has shades of the American Apparel controversy with ousted CEO Dov Charney that I have blogged about in the past. Charney also perpetuated a "bro culture" that seemed unseemly for a CEO, but isn't all that uncommon among young founders. The main difference here is that the investors, not the Board, made the decision to fire the CEO. As Ann noted in her post this weekend, there is a lot to unpack here. I’m not teaching Business Associations in the Fall, but I hope that many of you will find a way to use this as a case study on corporate governance, particularly Kalanick’s continuation as a board member. That could be awkward, to put it mildly. I plan to discuss it in my Corporate Compliance and Social Responsibility course later today. As I have told the students and written in the past, I am skeptical of consumers and their ability to change corporate culture. Sometimes, as in the case of Uber, it comes down to the investors holding the power of the purse.
Thursday, June 8, 2017
ICYMI: Eric Chaffee's "The Origins of Corporate Social Responsibility" Makes SSRN Top Downloads For Corporate Governance Network List
The paper can be downloaded here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/Papers.cfm?abstract_id=2957820
A portion of the abstract:
[T]his Essay and my other works introduce a new theory of the firm, collaboration theory. This theory views the corporation as a collaborative effort among a state government and those individuals organizing, operating, and owning the business entity to pursue economic development and economic gain. This theory is superior to the prevailing essentialist theories of the corporation because it explains both how and why the corporation exists.
Under this theory, corporations are obligated to seek profit based on the deal struck among the state and individuals owning, operating, and organizing the corporation, but the co-adventurers in the corporation are obligated to treat each other in good faith whenever possible. This means corporations should only engage in socially irresponsible ways in which the financial benefit to the corporation is clear. Because of the uncertainty of life, this is only going to be the rarest of circumstances. In these rare circumstances, to control bad behavior on the part of the corporation, the government must engage in affirmative lawmaking and regulation to alter the cost–benefit analysis to force corporations to be ethical.
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
In 2016, a number of news outlets focused on Wal-Mart’s reputation crisis and outdated management style. Many, including union leaders, doubted the sincerity behind the company’s motivation in raising wages last year. I’ve blogged about Wal-Mart before, but today, there appears to be a different story to tell. Wal-Mart, the bogeyman of many NGOs and workers’ rights groups, actually believes that “serving the customers and society is the same thing… [and] putting the customer first means delivering for them in ways that protect and preserve the communities they live in and the world they will pass on to future generations.” This comes from the company’s 148-page 2016 Global Responsibility Report. Target’s report is a paltry 43 pages in comparison.
What accounts for the difference? Both use the Global Reporting Initiative framework, which aims to standardize sustainability reporting using materiality factors and items in the 10-K. Key GRI disclosures include: a CEO statement; key impacts, risks, and opportunities; markets; collective bargaining agreements; supply chain description; organizational changes; internal and external CSR standards (such as conflict mineral policy, LEED etc); membership associations; governance structure; high-level accountability for sustainability; consultation between stakeholders and the board; board composition; board knowledge of sustainability; board pay; helplines or hotlines for reporting unethical or unlawful behavior; climate change risks; energy consumption; GhG emissions; employee benefits; health and safety; performance appraisal process; human rights assessments; wage and hour audits; supplier diversity; community engagement; PAC contributions by party; and more.
Whew! Companies can of course glean a lot of this information from their proxy, 10-K and other disclosures, but it still takes the average company months to complete. It may not even be worth it. Although 82% of consumers say they want to buy from a socially-responsible company, only 17% have actually read a CSR report, according to one study. To be honest, I’m surprised the number of CSR report readers is that high. My informal survey during Monday's class revealed that one student out of the 12 had read a CSR report, and this is in a group that chose to take a two-hour course in compliance and CSR that meets at 7:30 pm in the summer.
Here’s what I learned about Wal-Mart by reading the first four pages its report (it cleverly has big colorful picture blocks of statistics). I knew from press reports that Wal-Mart is currently facing numerous employment law class actions and may soon pay $300 million to the DOJ settle its bribery scandal. But the CSR report made Wal-Mart look like the model corporate citizen. The company earned 482 billion in revenue, employs 2.3 million employees, operates in 28 countries, and had 260 million weekly customer visits in 2016. It has invested 2.7 billion over 2 years in wages and benefits for its employees. It will train 1 million female farmers and factory workers around the world. It has eliminated 35.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain. Target, which has settled for 18.5 million with several states over data breaches, took a different approach for its report. Its first few pages has pictures and charts too but focuses on what it has achieved/exceeded and what it hasn’t based on its own 20 goals. The Target 2015 report is a decidedly more humble looking document than the Wal-Mart product (the next Target report is due this year).
I tend to believe that these CSR reports are designed for the consumption of regulators and lawmakers- hence the longer and more robust Wal-Mart report. Although Target claims in its report that CSR can enhance its reputation, the average Wal-Mart and Target consumer will not stop to read the report and many who boycott these stores will not likely change their minds be reading these reports. Instead, they may view them as an expensive marketing tool. Although Target doesn't face the same level of legal problems or reputational issues as Wal-Mart, it has still lost market share to Wal-Mart and Amazon, proving my theory that no matter what consumers say about shopping ethically, they really focus on convenience, quality, and price.
I look forward to hearing what my students think at tonight’s class. I fear I may already traumatize them with the videos they will see about Nike, fair trade, and whether boycotting sweatshops make sense.
Friday, June 2, 2017
See a somewhat similar version of that talk here.
Jeff Van Duzer's point seemed to be that you cannot be a truly socially responsible company simply by giving some money to good causes. I think he was exactly right. He went on to explain that socially responsible businesses should focus on creating good products and good jobs.
This week I was thinking about Jeff Van Duzer's talk when I considered, for about the one hundredth time, how to define social enterprises.
Think about Ben & Jerry's, a company that comes up at almost every social enterprise conference. While I can think of some good that ice cream does, I wonder if Ben & Jerry's main products are, on the whole, socially beneficial. We have a serious, deadly obesity problem in the country, and Ben & Jerry's products seem to be contributing to this problem. Perhaps Ben & Jerry's ice cream is more healthy than most options or uses more natural ingredients (I am unsure if this is true), but are Ben & Jerry's core products a net benefit to society? Perhaps Ben & Jerry's tip the scale in the social direction by providing good jobs with good benefits. However, Ben & Jerry's is best known for their giving and advocacy, which any business (no matter how socially destructive) could do.
The same arguments could be made against Hershey and Mars Corp., both of which are also well known for their focus on social responsibility. Are there certain industries that social enterprises should avoid altogether? Or should social enterprises enter all industries and try to make them incrementally better?
As a consumer, I am becoming more convinced that providing good products should among the very highest priorities. High quality products and thoughtful customer service is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
Given that I have two young children, Melissa & Doug toys come to mind as a company that is doing it right. Their products are durable and well-designed. Their products are designed to encourage Free Play, Creativity, Imagination, Learning, Discovery. Little Tikes is an older, but similar, company. I have never heard Melissa & Doug or Little Tikes referred to as "social enterprises," but, in my opinion, both companies benefit society much more than many of the frequently mentioned "social enterprises."
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
On June 8, I will answer this and other questions during an interactive session for a group of social entrepreneurs at Venture Cafe in Miami. Fortunately, I will have an accountant with me to talk through some of the tax issues. I was invited by the director of Radical Partners, a social impact accelerator. We estimate that 75% of the audience members will work for a nonprofit and the rest will work in traditional for profit entities with a social mission.
Many entrepreneurs in South Florida have an interest in benefit corporations, but don't really know much about them. Our job is to provide some guidance on entity selection and demystify these relatively new entities. Some of the issues I plan to address in my 20 minutes are:
1) the differences between nonprofits, for profits, and benefit corporations
2) the differences between benefit and social purpose corporations (focusing on Florida law)
3) the biggest myths about benefit corporations (such as perceived tax benefits)
4) tax issues (for the accountant)
5) director duties
6) funding- changing funding model from donors to investors; going public
7) reporting, auditing, and certification requirements
8) benefit enforcement proceedings
9) the role of B Lab and the difference between a B Corp and a benefit corporation (currently 15 Florida companies are certified through B Lab)
10) transparency and accountability issues
We plan to leave about 45 minutes for questions. Not many lawyers in Florida have experience with benefit or social purpose corporations, so I am seeking guidance from our readers. If you are a practitioner and have dealt with these entities in your states, I'm interested in your thoughts. Are a lot of your clients asking about these entities? Have they converted? How do you help them decide whether this change is good for them? I'm also fortunate to have colleagues on this blog who are real thought leaders in the area, and am looking forward to their comments. Personally, I believe that for many business owners, benefit corporations may provide a perceived marketing edge, but not much more, Author Tina Ho has raised concerns about greenwashing. If I'm wrong, let me know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, May 12, 2017
From a Facebook post by Dr. Steven Garber, I recently learned of the mutuality in business project by Mars Corporation and University of Oxford.
Quoting from the website:
A collaborative project with the Mars Corporation exploring mutuality as a new principle for organising business. Mutuality - a principle that emphasises the fair distribution of the burdens and benefits of a firm’s activities - is seen as a promising new organising value with the potential to strengthen relationships and improve sustainability.
"Mutuality in business" seems to be yet another term for social responsibility in business. We already have so many terms for the social business concept - blended value, business for good, CSR, creative capitalism, multi-stakeholder governance, natural capitalism, shared value capitalism, social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, social innovation, sustainability, triple bottom line. Many people are trying to create, differentiate, and mark their corner in this social business space.
Despite the addition of yet another social business term, the information at the website is interesting, especially the research projects.
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
Every year my students have the opportunity to earn extra credit writing about business issues that they see in movies or television. This year the movies Wall Street, and The Social Network tied for the most popular subjects. One student wrote an interesting paper about the business and CSR issues in Monsters, Inc., a movie I plan to watch for the first time this weekend. Disney’s describes the movie this way:
Lovable Sulley and his wisecracking sidekick Mike Wazowski are the top scare team at Monsters, Inc., the scream-processing factory in Monstropolis. When a little girl named Boo wanders into their world, it's the monsters who are scared silly, and it's up to Sulley and Mike to keep her out of sight and get her back home.
The student who wrote the paper spent her time instead focusing on Mr. Waternoose, the villainous CEO, seen here.
Personally, I was hoping someone would write about Season 3 of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which has provided some great scenes about fiduciary duties, corporate governance, succession planning, funding, and other issues related to startups. No one did, but I was pleased to see so many students apply what they learned in class to what they have watched on screen. Some even indicated that they finally understood The Wolf of Wall Street now that they have taken the class. Let’s see if that understanding is reflected in their exams. Happy grading, everyone!
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Last week, a reporter interviewed me regarding conflict minerals.The reporter specifically asked whether I believed there would be more litigation on conflict minerals and whether the SEC's lack of enforcement would cause companies to stop doing due diligence. I am not sure which, if any, of my remarks will appear in print so I am posting some of my comments below:
Just today, the GAO issued a report on conflict minerals. Dodd-Frank requires an annual report on the effectiveness of the rule "in promoting peace and security in the DRC and adjoining countries." Of note, the report explained that:
After conducting due diligence, an estimated 39 percent of the companies reported in 2016 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 23 percent in 2015. Almost all of the companies that reported conducting due diligence in 2016 reported that they could not determine whether the conflict minerals financed or benefited armed groups, as in 2015 and 2014. (emphasis added).
The Trump Administration, some SEC commissioners, and many in Congress have already voiced their concerns about this legislation. I didn't have the benefit of the GAO report during my interview, but it will likely provide another nail in the coffin of the conflict minerals rule.
April 26, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Ratings behemoth Bill O'Reilly is out of a job at Fox News “after thorough and careful review of the [sexual harassment] allegations” against him by several women. Fox had settled with almost half a dozen women before these allegations came to light, causing advertisers to leave in droves once the media reported on it. According to one article, social media activists played a major role in the loss of dozens of sponsors. Despite the revelations, or perhaps in a show of support, O’Reilly’s ratings actually went up even as advertisers pulled out. Fox terminated O’Reilly-- who had just signed a new contract worth $20 million per year-- the day before its parent company’s board was scheduled to meet to discuss the matter. The employment lawyer in me also wonders if the company was trying to preempt any negligent retention liability, but I digress.
An angry public also took to social media to expose United Airlines' after its ill-fated decision to have a passenger forcibly removed from his seat to make room for crew members. However, despite the estimated 3.5 million impressions on Twitter of #BoycottUnited, the airline will not likely suffer financially in the long term because of its near monopoly on some key routes. United’s stock price nosedived by $800 million right after the disturbing video surfaced, but has rebounded somewhat with EPS beating estimates. Check out Haskell Murray's recent post here for more perspective on United.
Pepsi and supermodel Kendall Jenner also suffered more embarrassment than financial loss after people around the world erupted on social media over an ad that many believed trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi pulled the controversial ad within 24 hours. Some believe that Pepsi may suffer in sales, but I’m not so sure. Ironically, Pepsi’s stock price went up during the scandal and went down after the company apologized.
Pepsi and United both suffered public relations nightmares, but the skeptic in me believes that consumers will ultimately focus on what’s most important to them- convenience, quality, price, and in Pepsi’s case, taste. I recently attended my 25th law school reunion, and all of my colleagues who used a ride sharing app used Uber nowithstanding its well-publicized leadership scandals and the #deleteuber campaign. Indeed, many social media campaigns actually backfire. The #grabyourwallet boycott of Ivanka Trump’s brand raised public awareness but may have actually led to its recent record sales.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether social media campaigns and threats of consumer boycotts actually cause long-standing and permanent changes in corporate culture or policy. There is no doubt, however, that CEOs and PR departments will be working more closely than ever in the age of viral videos and 24-hour worldwide Twitter feeds.
Friday, April 14, 2017
By now, I am sure virtually all of our readers have heard about the United Airline issue involving the dragging of a passenger off the plane.
Shortly following the incident, United Airlines stock dropped sharply, losing hundreds of millions of dollars of value. (Of course, it is difficult to tell how much of this drop is related to the incident).
The CEO of United Airlines' first public statement was tone deaf at best. He wrote, "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers" when better terms would have been "unacceptable" and "immediate corrective procedures." There is not evidence that they "had" to remove passengers; they removed passengers because they wanted to transport some of their employees on that flight. The internal e-mail to the corporation's employees was no better, calling the passenger "disruptive and belligerent."
My social media feeds, which include many lawyers and legal academics, are full of debate over whether United Airlines acted within the bounds of the law and their terms & conditions. While this is an interesting discussion, I think it is largely beside the point in this case. Regardless of whether United Airlines was legally correct, they surely could have handled the situation better (by offering more money for volunteers to go on a later flight, by explaining the terms of the deal better, by having their employees transported in another plane, etc.)
United Airlines is already paying a heavy public relations price. One thinks they would have learned from the United Airlines Breaks Guitars incident that went viral a few years ago and which I use in my negotiation classes every year.
After this incident, I just kept thinking how unlikely it would be for something like this to happen at Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines has a famously great company culture. See here, here, and here. Their employees always treat me significantly better than any other airline employee I have dealt with on my travel. Southwest Airlines is not perfect--I don't love their odd boarding procedure, for example---but they do strive to treat their consumers and their own employees extremely well, not just as poorly as the law will allow.
Southwest Airlines' company culture has also translated to remarkably reliable profits. Perhaps United needs to take notes.
Note: This appears to detail the rights of passengers who are denied boarding (up to $1,350) that many in the media are citing, though one can wonder whether this applies since the passenger in question had already boarded.
Update: This is the type of thing Southwest Airlines has become known for - turning a plane around so that a woman could be put in touch with her husband about a head injury their son had sustained. And booking her on the next flight, for free.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
The Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders are soon to become the Las Vegas Raiders. This has fans in an uproar, with some saying the move is like losing "family." Moves of sports teams are rarely well received in the place the team leaves, and this move is no different.
Teams move for a variety of reasons, though the primary reason comes down to money. And there's nothing wrong with that. Although it is a loss for long-time fans, the team will get new fans in the locations (if history is any indication), and it's certainly the right of the business owners to decide what is best for their business. In the judgment of Raiders' ownership, it's time for Vegas Baby.
The structure of the NFL is such that team owners need approval of the league to make such a move, which makes sense because a sports league is necessarily dependent on other teams. As such, the teams have created some obligations to one another and agreed to give up some level of control for the good of the league. All but one team voted to support the move to Vegas (the Miami Dolphins dissented), giving the Raiders 31 votes, when they only needed 24. Thus, it means the other league owners (sans the Dolphins' owners) thought the move was in their best interest, too.
This makes three recently announced NFL team moves. In addition to the Raiders, the former St. Louis Rams returned to Los Angeles, and the former San Diego Chargers are now a second L.A.-based team. This means the super majority of NFL owners feel all of these moves are in the best interest of the league, or are at least neutral to the moves. This makes some sense, as there had been relative stability for the league teams, with the last move before these three taking place in 1997, when the Houston Oilers left for Tennessee (Memphis temporarily, then Nashville in 1999).
Moving forward, though, how much will fans take? If several more teams make a move in the next few years, will it upset fans to the point that they stop watching? Hard to say, but the league will be able to put a stop to it if they are concerned. There are a number of older stadiums in the league, so there may be more moves to come. There will almost certainly be threats to move, even if teams end up staying put.
If teams keep moving, it's possible the league could be hurt, but that would require the NFL fans in the old league cities to stop watching the NFL. That could happen, but it seems unlikely. Either way, it probably won't be a move that tells us the league is being harmed. Instead, it will probably be when teams without a lease don't get a lucrative offer to move another city.