Saturday, October 13, 2018

Has the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule Really Made a Difference and is Blockchain The Answer?

Last week Dr. Denis Mukwege won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This short video interview describes what I saw when I went to DRC in 2011 to research the newly-enacted Dodd-Frank disclosure rule and to do the legwork for a non-profit that teaches midwives ways to deliver babies safely. For those unfamiliar with the legislation, U.S. issuers must disclose the efforts they have made to track and trace tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold from the DRC and nine surrounding countries. Rebels and warlords control many of the mines by controlling the villages. DRC is one of the poorest nations in the world per capita but has an estimated $25 trillion in mineral reserves (including 65% of the world's cobalt). Armed militia use rape and violence as a weapon of war in part so that they control the mineral wealth. 

The stated purpose of the Dodd-Frank rule was to help end the violence in DRC and to name and shame companies that do not disclose or that cannot certify that their goods are DRC-conflict free (although that labeling portion of the law was struck down on First Amendment grounds). I  wrote a law review article in 2013 and co-filed an amicus brief during the litigation arguing that the law would not help people on the ground. I have also blogged here about legislation to end the rulehere about the EU's version of the rulehere about the differences between the EU and US rule, and half a dozen times since 2013.

I had the honor of meeting Dr. Mukwege in 2011, who at the time did not support the conflict minerals legislation. He has since endorsed such legislation for the EU. During our trip, we met dozens of women who had been raped, often by gangs. On our way to meet midwives and survivors of a massacre, I saw five corpses of villagers lying in the street. They were slain by rebels the night before. I saw children mining gold from a river with armed soldiers only a few feet away.  That trip is the reason that I study, write, and teach about business and human rights. I had only been in academia for three weeks when I went to DRC, and I decided that my understanding of supply chains and corporate governance from my past in-house life could help others develop more practical solutions to intractable problems. I believed then and I believe now that using a corporate governance disclosure to solve a human rights crisis is a flawed and incomplete solution. It depends on the belief that large numbers of consumers will boycott companies that do not do enough for human rights. 

What does the data say about compliance with the rule? The General Accounting Office puts out a mandatory report annually on the legislation and the state of disclosures. According to the 2018 report:

Similar to the prior 2 years, almost all companies required to conduct due diligence, as a result of their country-of-origin inquiries, reported doing so. After conducting due diligence to determine the source and chain of custody of any conflict minerals used, an estimated 37 percent of these companies reported in 2017 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 39 and 23 percent in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Four companies in GAO’s sample declared their products “DRC conflict-free,” and of those, three included the required Independent Private Sector Audit report (IPSA), and one did not. In 2017, 16 companies filed an IPSA; 19 did so in 2016. (emphasis added).

But what about the effect on forced labor and rape? The 2017 GAO Report indicated that in 2016, a study in DRC estimated that 32 percent of women and 33 percent of men in these areas had been exposed to some form of sexual and gender-based violence in their lifetime. Notably, just last month, a coalition of Congolese civil society organizations wrote the following to the United Nations seeking a country-wide monitoring system:

... Armed groups and security forces have attacked civilians in many parts of the country...Today, some 4.5 million Congolese are displaced from their homes. More than 100,000 Congolese have fled abroad since January 2018, raising the risk of increased regional instability... Since early this year, violence intensified in various parts of northeastern Congo’s Ituri province, with terrifying incidents of massacres, rapes, and decapitation. Armed groups launched deadly attacks on villages, killing scores of civilians, torching hundreds of homes, and displacing an estimated 350,000 people. Armed groups and security forces in the Kivu provinces also continue to attack civilians. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, assailants, including state security forces, killed more than 580 civilians and abducted at least 940 others in North and South Kivu since January 2018. (emphasis added)

The U.S. government provides $500 million in aid to the DRC and runs an app called Sweat and Toil for people who are interested in avoiding goods produced by exploited labor. As of today, DRC has seven goods produced with exploitative labor: cobalt (used in electric cars and cell phones), copper, diamonds, and, not surprisingly, tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold- the four minerals regulated by Dodd-Frank. The app notes that "for the second year in a row, labor inspectors have failed to conduct any worksite inspections... and [the] government also separated as many as 2,360 children from armed groups...[t]here were numerous reports of ongoing collaboration between members of the [DRC] Armed Forces and non-state armed groups known for recruiting children... The Armed Forces carried out extrajudicial killings of civilians including children, due to their perceived support or affiliation with non-state armed groups. .."

For these reasons, I continue to ask whether the conflict minerals legislation has made a difference in the lives of the people on the ground. The EU, learning from Dodd-Frank's flaws, has passed its own legislation, which goes into effect in 2021.  The EU law applies beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo and defines conflict areas as those in a state of armed conflict, or fragile post-conflict area, areas with weak or nonexistent governance and security such as failed states, and any state with a widespread or systematic violation of international law including human rights abuses. Certain European Union importers will have to identify and address the actual potential risks linked to conflict-affected areas or high-risk areas during the due diligence of their supply chains. 

Notwithstanding the statistics above, many investors, NGOs, and other advocates believe the Dodd-Frank rule makes sense. A coalition of investors with 50 trillion worth of assets under management has pushed to keep the law in place. It's no surprise then that many issuers have said that they would continue the due diligence even if the law were repealed. I doubt that will help people in these countries, but the due diligence does help drive out inefficiencies and optimize supply chains.

Stay tuned for my upcoming article in UT's business law journal, Transactions, where I will discuss how companies and state actors are using blockchain technology for due diligence related to human rights. Blockchain will minimize expenses and time for these disclosure requirements, but it probably won't stop the forced labor, exploitation, rapes, and massacres that continue in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (See here for a Fortune magazine article with a great video discussing how and why companies are exploring blockchain's uses in DRC). The blockchain technology won't be the problem-- it's already being used for tracing conflict diamonds. The problem is using the technology in a state with such lawlessness. This means that blockchain will probably help companies, but not the people the laws are meant to protect. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 13, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 16, 2018

How I Became (Semi) Literate About Distributed Ledger and Blockchain Technology

I knew it would be impossible. There was no way to relay my excitement about the potential of blockchain technology in a concise way to lawyers and law students last Friday at the Connecting the Threads symposium at the University of Tennessee School of Law. I didn't discuss cryptocurrency or Bitcoin other than to say that I wasn't planning to discuss it. Still, there wasn't nearly enough time for me to discuss all of the potential use cases. I did try to make it clear that it's not a fad if IBM has 1500 people working on it, BITA has hundreds of logistics and freight companies signed up to explore possibilities, and the World Bank, OECD, and United Nations have studies and pilot programs devoted to it. As a former supply chain person, compliance officer, and chief privacy officer, I'm giddy with excitement about everything related to distributed ledger technology other than cryptocurrency. You can see why when you read my law review article in a few months in Transactions.

I've watched over 100 YouTube videos (many of them crappy) and read dozens of articles. I go to Meetups and actually understand what the coders and developers are saying (most of the time). A few students and practitioners asked me how I learned about DLT/blockchain. First, see herehere, here, and here for my prior posts listing resources and making the case for learning the basics of the technology. What I list below adds to what I've posted in the past.

Here are some of the podcasts I listen to (there are others, of course):

1) The Decrypting Crypto Podcast 

2) Block that Chain

3) Block and Roll

4) Blockchain Innovation

Here are some of the videos that I watched (that I haven't already linked to in past posts):

1) Using Blockchains for Supply Chains

2) IBM and Maersk demo: Cross-border supply chain solution on blockchain

3) How to Activate a Blockchain with IBM (Demo)

4) Examples of Blockchain Changing Every Day Life

5) 19 Industries The Blockchain Will Disrupt

6) Vitalek Buterin Explains Ethereum

7) In Conversation with Vitalik Buterin, Justin Drake and Karl Floersch (Ethereum Foundation)

8) Fireside Chat With Vitalek Buterin

9) Blockchain and Food Safety With IBM and Walmart

10) Applying Blockchain Technology to Customs Declarations

11) Your 31st Human Right Guaranteed by Blockchain

12) How Blockchain Can Transform India

13) Blockchain, A Tool for Social Good

14) Blockchain for Social Impact

15) Bitcoin, Blockchain, and the Law

16) Blockchain and the Law: What Lawyers (And their Clients) Need to Know

17) Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code

18) The Blockchain: A Revolution You Need to Understand

19) Vitalik Buterin on Ethereum, Bitcoin, and Scaling

20) Exploring Blockchain Use Cases: Microsoft Azure

21) How the Blockchain is Changing Money and Business

22) Blockchain and Corporate Law

23) Blockchain Innovation in Law and Corporate Governance

24) Changing the Legal Game With Blockchain

25) Blockchain and Smart Contracts

26) Code is Not the Law: Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence

27) Linklaters Blockchain Legal & Regulation Panel

28) How Do You Square Blockchain with Privacy Laws

29) Jeff Jonas on GDPR and Integrating IBM Blockchain with Senzing at IBM Think 2018

30) CPDP 2018: BLOCKCHAIN AND DATA PROTECTION: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

31) John McAfee: about blockchain, bitcoins and cyber security

There are dozens more, but this should be enough to get you started. Remember, none of these videos or podcasts will get you rich from cryptocurrency. But they will help you become competent to know whether you can advise clients on these issues. 

 

September 16, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Law Firms, Law Reviews, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Everyone Wants to Make Non-Corporate Things Corporate: It's Sen. Warren's Turn

Senator Elizabeth Warren last week released her Accountable Capitalism Act. My co-blogger Haskell Murray wrote about that here, as have a number of others, including Professor Bainbridge, who has written at least seven posts on his blogCountless others have weighed in, as well.

There are fans of the idea, others who are agnostic, and still other who thinks it’s a terrible idea. I am not taking a position on any of that, because I am too busy working through all the flaws with regard to entity law itself to even think about the overall Act.

As a critic of how most people view entities, my expectations were low. On the plus side, the bill does not say “limited liability corporation” one time.  So that’s a win. Still, there are a number of entity law flaws that make the bill problematic before you even get to what it’s supposed to do.  The problem: the bill uses “corporation” too often where it means “entity” or “business.”

Let’s start with the Section 2. DEFINITIONS.  This section provides:

 (2) LARGE ENTITY.—

(A) IN GENERAL.—The term ‘‘large entity’’ means an entity that—

(i) is organized under the laws of a State as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company;

(ii) engages in interstate commerce; and

(iii) in a taxable year, according to in- formation provided by the entity to the Internal Revenue Service, has more than $1,000,000,000 in gross receipts.

Okay, so it does list LLCs, correctly, but it does not list partnerships.  This would seem to exclude Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs). The Alerian MLP Indexlist about 40 MLPs with at least a $1 billion market cap.  It also leaves our publicly traded partnerships(PTPs). So, that’s a miss, to say the least. 

Section 2 goes on to define a  

(6) UNITED STATES CORPORATION.—The term “United States corporation’’ means a large entity with respect to which the Office has granted a charter under section 3.

The bill also creates an “Office of United States Corporations,” in Section 3, even though the definitions section clear says a “large entity” includes more than just corporations. 

Next is Section 4, which provides the “Requirement for Large Entities to Obtain Charters.”

LARGE ENTITIES.—

(1) IN GENERAL.— An entity that is organized as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company in a State shall obtain a charter from the Office . . . .”

So, again, the definition does not include MLPs (or any other partnership forms, or coops for that matter) as large entities.  I am not at all clear why the Act would refer to and define “Large Entities,” then go back to using “corporations.”  Odd. 

Later in section 4, we get the repercussions for the failure to obtain a charter: 

An entity to which paragraph (1) applies and that fails to obtain a charter from the Office as required under that paragraph shall not be treated as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint-stock company, or limited liability company, as applicable, for the purposes of Federal law during the period beginning on the date on which the entity is required to obtain a charter under that paragraph and ending on the date on which the entity obtains the charter.

Here, the section chooses not to use the large entity definition or the corporation definition and instead repeats the entity list from the definitions section. As a side note, does this section mean that, for “purposes of Federal law,” any statutory “large entity” without a charter is a general partnership or sole proprietorship? I would hope not for the LLC, which isn’t a corporation, anyway.

Finally, in Section 5, the Act provides:

(e) APPLICATION.—

(1) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION REGARDING GENERAL CORPORATE LAW.—Nothing in this section may be construed to affect any provision of law that is applicable to a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company, as applicable, that is not a United States corporation.

Again, I will note that “general corporate law” should not apply to anything but corporations, anyway. LLCs, in particular. 

The Act further contemplates a standard of conduct for directors and officers.  LLCs do not have to have either, at least not in the way corporations do, nor do MLPs/PTPs, which admittedly do not appear covered, anyway. The Act also contemplates shareholders and shareholder suits, which are not a thing for LLCs/MLPs/PTPs because they don’t have shareholders.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I think it’s a pretty good start. I will concede that some of my critiques could be argued another way.  Obviously, I'd disagree, but maybe some of this is not as egregious as I see it. Still, there are flaws, and if this thing is going to move beyond even the release, I sure hope they take the time to get the entity issues figured out. I’d be happy to help.

August 21, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Partnership, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Elizabeth Warren's Accountable Capitalism Act and Benefit Corporations

On Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren penned an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled Companies Shouldn’t Be Accountable Only to Shareholders: My new bill would require corporations to answer to employees and other stakeholders as well.

The article announced and promoted her Accountable Capitalism Act. With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, Warren’s bill almost certainly doesn’t stand a chance of passing in the short-term.

Yet, because the bill draws on benefit corporation governance, a main scholarly interest of mine, and because it may foreshadow moves by a Democrat-controlled Congress in the future, I decided to read the 28-page bill and report here briefly.

Portions of the bill summarized:

  • As has been widely reported, the bill only applies to companies with more than $1 billion in revenue.
  • The bill seeks to establish an “Office of United States Corporations” within the Department of Commerce, which will review, grant, and rescind charters for the large companies covered by the bill.
  • The bill takes language from benefit corporation law and requires that U.S. Corporations must have a purpose to serve a “general public benefit” – “a material positive impact on society resulting from the business and operations of a United States corporation, when taken as a whole.” This purpose is in addition to any purpose in the company’s state filing.
  • The governance requirements are a mix of the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation and Delaware version of benefit corporation law – requiring both that directors balance the “pecuniary interests of shareholders” with the "best interests of persons that are materially affected by the conduct of the United States corporation” (drawn from Delaware) and that directors consider a litany of stakeholders in their decisions (including shareholders, employees, customers, community, local and global environment - drawn from the Model). Only shareholders with 2%+ of the shares can sue derivatively.
  • Employees must elect 40%+ of the board of directors.
  • 75%+ of shareholders and 75%+ of directors must approve political spending of over $10,000 on a single candidate.

My brief thoughts:

  • This is a lot of press for benefit corporations.
  • The press may not be good for benefit corporation proponents who have been largely able to pitch to both sides of the political aisle in their state bills. B Lab co-founder Jay Coen Gilbert has already written an article trying to promote what he sees as the bipartisan nature of benefit corporations: Elizabeth Warren, Republicans, CEOs & BlackRock's Fink Unite Around 'Accountable Capitalism'
  • I have noted in my scholarly work how the state benefit corporation laws fail to align the purported “general public benefit” corporate purpose with effective accountability mechanisms. This bill, however, takes one step toward aligning company purpose and accountability by requiring that employees elect 40%+ of the board. Of course, that still leaves out many other stakeholders that directors are supposed to consider, and shareholders are still the only stakeholders with the ability to sue derivatively. A better solution is to have stakeholder representatives who elect the entire board and also possess, collectively, the right to sue derivatively. This stakeholder representative framework, articulated in my 2017 American Business Law Journal article, has the benefit of keeping the board united on a common goal – instead of fighting on behalf of the single stakeholder group who elected them – while also being held to account by representatives of all major stakeholder groups, collectively.
  • Suggesting that benefit corporation law become mandatory will likely not be popular among many conservatives. See, e.g., this early response in the National Review: Elizabeth Warren’s Batty Plan to Nationalize . . . Everything. Currently, a fair response to conservative critics of state benefit corporation laws is "if businesses do not like the benefit corporation framework, they can just choose to be a traditional corporation." This bill attempts to remove that choice for large companies. 

(My co-blogger Joshua Fershee may be horrified to learn that the bill purports to apply not only to corporations, but also to LLCs, even though they use the term "U.S. Corporations" throughout).   

August 16, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporations, CSR, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, July 27, 2018

Beyond Bitcoin: Why You Should Care About Blockchain and Smart Contracts-Part 1

Pura vida from Costa Rica. Between recovery from carpal tunnel surgery a few weeks ago and an ATV flip two days ago, I don’t have much mental or physical energy to do a full post. I haven’t mastered dictation so I’m typing this on an iPad with one hand. Next week, I’ll provide more substance as well as a preview on my September talk at our second annual BPLB symposium at the University of Tennessee. Today, I want to pass on some resources for those who don’t know anything about blockchain. 

For those who want to provide resources for students, Walter Effross has put together a great site:

http://blockchainforlawstudents.com/

The following sources come from Professor Tonya Evans at UNH, who has developed an online curriculum on blockchain:

Use Cases: 

https://medium.com/fluree/blockchain-for-2018-and-beyond-a-growing-list-of-blockchain-use-cases-37db7c19fb99

https://www.mycryptopedia.com/16-promising-blockchain-use-cases/

Education:

https://medium.com/universablockchain/blockchain-in-education-49ad413b9e12

Blockchain + Law:

http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyers_can_contribute_to_the_rise_of_blockchain_by_understanding_it

https://abovethelaw.com/2018/02/blockchain-can-smart-contracts-replace-lawyers/

https://www.mycase.com/blog/2017/09/bitcoin-blockchain-lawyers-need-know/

Next week, I’ll talk about my research into how blockchain is used in corporate governance, compliance, supply chain management, enterprise risk management, cybersexurity, and human rights. 

July 27, 2018 in Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Does CSR Really Exist in Latin America? Should Corporations be Treated as Persecutors Under Asylum Law? Is Labor an Extractive Industry? Buy This Book and Find Out

In 2015, I and several academics and other experts traveled to Guatemala as part of the Lat-Crit study space. The main goal of the program was to examine the effect of the extractive industries on indigenous peoples and the environment. During our visit, we met with indigenous peoples, government ministers, the chamber of commerce, labor leaders, activists (some who had received multiple death threats), and village elders.

Our labor of love, From Extraction to Emancipation Development Reimagined, edited by Raquel Aldana and Steve Bender, was released this week. My chapter "Corporate Social Responsibility in Latin America: Fact or Fiction" introduces the book. I first blogged about CSR in the region in 2015 in the context of a number of companies that had touted their records but in fact, had been implicated in environmental degradation and even murder. Over the past few years, one of the companies I blogged about, Tahoe Resources, has been sued in Canada for human rights violations, the Norwegian pension fund has divested, and shareholders have filed a class action based on allegations re: the rights of indigenous people.

Although the whole book should be of interest to business law professors and practitioners, chapters of particular interest include a discussion of the environment and financial institutionsthe Central American experience with investor protections under CAFTA, whether corporations should be treated as persecutors under asylum law, climate adaptation and climate justice, the impact of mining on self-determination, environmental impact assessments, and labor as an extractive industry.

Other chapters that don't tie directly to business also deserve mention including my mentor Lauren Gilbert's closing chapter on gender violence, state actions, and power and control in the Northern Triangle, and other chapters on the right to water and sanitation in Central America, community-based biomonitoring, and managing deforestation.

We encourage you to buy the book and to invite the chapter authors to your institutions to present (shameless plug for panels, but we would love to share what we have learned). 

 

May 4, 2018 in Conferences, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Can Contract Clauses Stop Human Trafficking?

Last week, I blogged blogged about lawsuits against chocolate makers alleging unfair and deceptive trade practices for failure to disclose that the companies may have used child slaves to harvest their products. Today, I want to discuss steps that the Business Law Section of the American Bar Association is taking to provide more transparency in supply chain practices.

In 2014, the ABA House of Delegates adopted Model Principles on Labor Trafficking and Child Labor developed by over 50 judges, in-house counsel, outside counsel, academics, and NGOs. The Model Principles address the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other hard and soft law regimes. At last week’s ABA Business Law Spring Meeting, academics David Snyder and Jennifer Martin presented on human rights issues in supply chains alongside practicing lawyers and in-house executives. Many of them (and several others) had formed a Working Group to Draft Human Rights Protections in Supply Contracts. The Group aims to provide contract clauses that are “legally effective” and “operationally likely.”

As a former Deputy GC for a supply chain management company, I can attest that the ABA’s focus is timely as companies answer questions from customers, regulators, shareholders, and other stakeholders. Human rights issues play out in dozens of regulations, including, but not limited to: the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Act, California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, the UK Modern Slavery Act, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, and the updated Federal Acquisition Regulations. Australia and at least seven EU countries are currently working on their own regulations. Savvy lawyers have use the Alien Tort Statute, RICO, negligence, and false advertising allegations to state claims, with varying success.

The following statistics may provide some context. Thanks to e. Christopher Johnson, Jr., CEO of the Center for Justice, Rights, and Dignity.
- there are 21 million victims of human trafficking
- Human trafficking provides $150 billion in profit
- Women and girls are 55% of the victims, and children 17 and under are 26%

To help companies mitigate their supply chain risks, the Business Law and UC Article 1 and Article 2 Committees have drafted more specific model clauses to incorporate human rights provisions in certain contracts. The Committees are also establishing an information exchange with NGOs and developing a Toolkit for Canadian lawyers.

One of the most practical features of the Group’s work is Schedule P, the warranties and remedies to protect human rights in the supply chain. The Working Group’s Report provides guidance on how to use the clauses as well as potential limitations. It’s a long read but I recommend that you look at the report and consider whether the model clauses and Schedule P, an appendix to supplier agreements, will help in the fight to combat human trafficking and forced labor. 

April 21, 2018 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 13, 2018

Can a CSR Report Be Used Against A Company in Court?

Greetings from the ABA Business Law Meeting in sunny Orlando, Florida. Today, I attended an excellent program on Protecting Human Rights in Supply Chains; Moving from Policy to Action. I plan to blog more about the meeting next week, highlighting the work surrounding draft human rights clauses for supplier contracts. The project was spearheaded by David Snyder of American University and corporate lawyer Susan Maslow. In this post, I want to address one of the topics Susan Maslow discussed-- the recent spate of lawsuits brought by consumers who allege unfair trade practices based on what companies say (or don’t say) about their human rights records.

I’ve blogged (incessantly for the past five years) and written longer articles about the various ESG disclosure regimes. I’ve argued that in theory, disclosure is a good thing. But without meaningful financial penalties from regulators for violations, many corporations won’t do anything more than the bare minimum for human rights, even with the threat of (often short-lived) consumer boycotts. Further, most consumers suffer from disclosure overload or don’t understand or remember what they read.

The disclosure issue has now reached the courts. In 2015, a law firm filed cases in California under unfair competition and false advertising laws against the Hershey Company, Mars, and Nestle. The firm likely chose those causes of action because there’s no private right of action under the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act.  The suits claimed, among other things that:

  • in violation of California law, Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle failed to disclose that their suppliers in the Ivory Coast relied on child laborers and profitted from the child labor that supplies the chocolate sold to American consumers,
  • the children subjected to the forced labor are victims of hazardous work involving dangerous tools, transport of heavy loads and exposure to toxic substances, and,
  • “sometimes extremely poor people sell their own children into slavery for as little as $30. Children that are sometimes not even 10 years old carry huge sacks that are so big that they cause them serious physical harm. Much of the world’s chocolate is quite literally brought to us by the back-breaking labor of child slaves.”

Plaintiffs lost those cases because the court found that these companies had no legal duty to disclose on their labels that African child slaves might have been involved in manufacturing their cocoa. Had the plaintiffs won, I imagine that the First Amendment argument that prevailed in the Dodd-Frank conflicts minerals litigation would have played a prominent role in the appeal.

Fast forward a few years and the same law firm has now filed a similar class action lawsuit against Hershey in Massachusetts. This claim alleges unjust enrichment in violation of the state’s consumer protection law. According to plaintiffs, “much of the world’s chocolate is quite literally brought to us by the back-breaking labor of children, in many cases under conditions of slavery.” Moreover, they claim, “Hershey’s material omissions and failure to disclose at the point of sale [are] all the more appalling considering that Hershey’s Corporate Social Responsibility Report state[s] that ‘Hershey has zero tolerance for the worst forms of child labor in its supply chain.’ But Hershey does not live up to its own ideals.”

Hershey, like many companies, produces a CSR report showcasing its efforts and progress in accordance with the Global Reporting initiative, the gold standard for CSR. Companies like Hershey also report on their CSR initiatives in good faith with the knowledge that their statements are generally not legally binding, at least not in the United States. I’ll be following this case closely. If the court grants class certification, this could have a chilling effect on what companies say in their CSR reports, and that would be a shame.

April 13, 2018 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Corporate Boycotts, A Change of Heart from CEOs, and H & M's Diversity Initiative- A Roundup of The Week's News Stories

Within the past 24 hours, I've seen at least three news article that led me to reflect on my past blog posts. Rather than write a full post on each article, I've decided to note some observations.

The Tweet That Launched A Boycott (And Maybe a Buycott)

I've been skeptical in the past about whether boycotts work.  Perhaps times are changing. This week, Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg tweeted that advertisers on Laura Ingraham's cable show should pull out after she tweeted,  "David Hogg Rejected By Four Colleges To Which He Applied and whines about it. (Dinged by UCLA with a 4.1 GPA...totally predictable given acceptance rates.) https://www.dailywire.com/news/28770/gun-rights-provocateur-david-hogg-rejected-four-joseph-curl "  On March 28th, the 17-year old activist responded with "Soooo what are your biggest advertisers ... Asking for a friend. ." He then provided a list of her top twelve sponsors.

As of 8:00 p.m. tonight, the following companies dumped the Fox show, eleven after the talk show host had apologized, stating “On reflection, in the spirit of Holy Week, I apologize for any upset or hurt my tweet caused him or any of the brave victims of Parkland... For the record, I believe my show was the first to feature David immediately after that horrific shooting and even noted how ‘poised’ he was given the tragedy ... As always, he’s welcome to return to the show anytime for a productive discussion.”

The companies that have pulled their advertising include Nutrish, Office Depot, Jenny Craig, Hulu, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Wayfair, Stitch Fix, Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson, Jos A Bank, Miracle Ear, Liberty Mutual and Principal. But will they ever return to the show after the attention moves to something else? Will the sponsors face a "buycott," where Ingraham's fans boycott the boycotters or increase their support of the advertisers that Hogg specifically named but have chosen to stay with Ingraham? Time will tell. 

Silicon Valley CEOs Warm to President Trump

Last year, I posted about various CEOs choosing to distance themselves from President Trump by resigning from advisory councils because they disagreed with his actions or positions on everything from immigration to his reaction to the events in Charlottesville. Today, the New York Times reported that some of the same CEOs that bemoaned Trump's election and/or publicly condemned him have now had a change of heart. Apparently, they have more common ground than they thought on areas of tax reform, infrastructure, and looser regulation. I look forward to seeing whether any of these companies or CEOs refrain from criticizing him in the future or, more tellingly, whether they choose to use PAC money or personal funds to support his re-election. 

H & M Asks One of Its Lawyers To Lead Diversity Initiative

H & M has lots of problems from underperforming designs (billions in unsold clothes) to continued fallout from its "coolest monkey in the jungle" hoodie. As you may recall, in January, a number of consumers, public figures, and other called for a boycott of the company after a young black boy advertised a green hoodie with the word "monkey." H & M even had to close its store in South Africa.  The fast fashion company has now turned to one of its in-house lawyers to lead a 4-person team to focus on diversity and inclusiveness. The lawyer will report directly to the CEO in Stockholm. Notably, the board is all white. Should the board diversify as well? It's hard to say. While I support diversity in the executive ranks and the boardroom,  there is no evidence that the monkey hoodie led to the 62% drop in operating profit in Q1. Instead, experts note that consumers just didn't like the selections, even at steep discounts. Further, the average H & M customer probably has no idea about this new diversity initiative and even if the customer knew, it'sdoubtful that would change buying habits. Even so, I applaud H & M for taking concrete steps. The company already produces a compelling Sustainability Report. I look forward to seeing if the company can return to profitabiity while keeping its commitment to diversity. 

 

 

 

March 30, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Prof. Jena Martin's New Human Rights Paper: Applying Bystander Intervention Training to Corporate Conduct

Friend and colleague Jena Martin has posted her new paper, Easing "the Burden of the Brutalized": Applying Bystander Intervention Training to Corporate Conduct.  And when I say new, I mean new.  It went on SSRN within the last hour.  

Prof. Martin is an expert in business and human rights, and her new paper offers a new framework for corporations that are seeking to reduce or eliminate human rights violations.  Her paper is designed to help corporation beyond due diligence and reporting to allow them to "engage with either the oppressor or the oppressed in a way that directly minimizes human rights abuses."  It is a timely piece with some interesting and innovative suggestions.  I look forward to seeing where the final version ends up. 

Abstract

The last few years have borne witness to a shift regarding how to address issues of oppression and social injustice. Across many different advocacy points - from police brutality to sexual violence - there seems to be a consensus that simply engaging the oppressor or the victim is not enough to affect real social change. The consensus itself is not new: it has been at the heart of many social justice movements over the years. However, what is new is the explicit evocation of the bystander within this framework. Too often, in conversations on conflicts generally (and negative human rights impact specifically), bystanders have been relegated to the sidelines, with no defined, specific role to play and no discussion within the larger narrative. Now, however, -- through the use of bystander intervention training -- these actors are taking on a more prominent role.

In previous articles, I have stated that the rhetoric and posture that transnational corporations (TNCs) maintain vis-à-vis human rights impacts is that of a bystander. Frequently, when human rights abuses occur, TNCs find themselves in the position of having to acknowledge their presence in the area of the underlying conflict, while profusely maintaining that none of their actions caused the harm against the community. Building off this prior work, this article seeks to answer the following question: are there lessons that can be learned from bystander intervention training in other contexts, that can be used for the benefits of TNCs within the field of business and human rights? I conclude that what is lacking in the current discourse on corporate policies regarding addressing negative human rights impacts is an articulation regarding when, and under what circumstances, it is appropriate for corporations to intervene in negative human rights disputes. This goes beyond the current proposals for human rights due diligence frameworks in that, rather than merely undergoing an assessment and then reporting this information out (as is required by most current legal frameworks that address business and human rights reporting) this would help corporations – informed by a bystander intervention framework – to engage with either the oppressor or the oppressed in a way that directly minimizes human rights abuses.

March 6, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Human Rights, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 2, 2018

Will Conscious Capitalism Succeed? Corporate America and Guns

I live in South Florida and have friends who live in Parkland, Florida, the site of the most recent school shooting. Like many, I've found solace and inspiration in the young survivors and their families who have taken to the streets and visited Washington, D.C. to demand action to prevent the next tragedy. Who knows whether they will succeed where others have failed. I certainly hope so.

I'm more surprised though, with the reactions of major companies such as WalMart, Dicks, REI, United Airlines, Hertz, Symantec and others that have cut ties with the National Rifle Association or have changed their sales practices. Skeptics have observed that corporations take "controversial" stances only when it's cheap or easy and that this stance against the NRA isn't even that controversial. But, it certainly hasn't been "cheap" for Delta Airlines. Notwithstanding the fact that the airline employs 33,000 people in the state, Georgia has passed a bill to eliminate a proposed $50 million tax break because Delta announced plans to end its discount for NRA members. 

The gun control issue is the latest in a string of public policy debates that have divided corporations over the past year. CEOs have taken positions on the travel ban, Charlottesville, the NFL protests, the Paris Climate Accord, transgender bathroom laws, and immigration. Some of these positions are more closely tied to their core business than others, and some have been driven by social media activism. 

Cautious companies have guidance and momentum on their side when deciding whether to weigh in on social issues. According to the Conscious Capitalism credo, “.. business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. Free enterprise capitalism is the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress ever conceived. It is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had. But we can aspire to even more.” This movement focuses on a higher purpose than generating profits; a stakeholder orientation; leaders that cultivate a culture of care and consciousness; and a conscious culture that permeates the people, purpose, and process.

Blackrock, with $1.7 trillion under management, made that even more clear in its January 2018  letter to CEOs, which stated, among other things: 

Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders. It will succumb to short-term pressures to distribute earnings, and, in the process, sacrifice investments in employee development, innovation, and capital expenditures that are necessary for long-term growth...

Companies must ask themselves: What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? Are we working to create a diverse workforce? Are we adapting to technological change? Are we providing the retraining and opportunities that our employees and our business will need to adjust to an increasingly automated world? Are we using behavioral finance and other tools to prepare workers for retirement, so that they invest in a way that will help them achieve their goals?

What does this mean for the future? Is corporate social responsibility more of a business imperative than ever? Boards are now entering proxy season. Will shareholders demand more? Will state and federal governments use their power, as Georgia has, to send a message to the C-Suite? Will consumers engage in boycotts or buycotts? (See  herehereherehere) for my views on boycotts). I look forward to seeing how whether the corporations sustain this conscious capitalism over the long term even when it is no longer "cheap" and "easy."

 

 

March 2, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, February 16, 2018

Corporate Governance, Compliance, Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management in the Trump/Pence Era

This may be obsolete by the time you read this post, but here are my thoughts on Corporate Governance, Compliance, Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management in the Trump/Pence Era. Thank you, Joan Heminway and the wonderful law review editors of Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law. The abstract is below:

With Republicans controlling Congress, a Republican CEO as President, a “czar” appointed to oversee deregulation, and billionaires leading key Cabinet posts, corporate America had reason for optimism following President Trump’s unexpected election in 2016. However, the first year of the Trump Administration has not yielded the kinds of results that many business people had originally anticipated. This Essay will thus outline how general counsel, boards, compliance officers, and institutional investors should think about risk during this increasingly volatile administration. 

Specifically, I will discuss key corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility issues facing U.S. public companies, although some of the remarks will also apply to the smaller companies that serve as their vendors, suppliers, and customers. In Part I, I will discuss the importance of enterprise risk management and some of the prevailing standards that govern it. In Part II, I will focus on the changing role of counsel and compliance officers as risk managers and will discuss recent surveys on the key risk factors that companies face under any political administration, but particularly under President Trump. Part III will outline some of the substantive issues related to compliance, specifically the enforcement priorities of various regulatory agencies. Part IV will discuss an issue that may pose a dilemma for companies under Trump— environmental issues, and specifically shareholder proposals and climate change disclosures in light of the conflict between the current EPA’s position regarding climate change, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and corporate commitments to sustainability. Part V will conclude by posing questions and proposing recommendations using the COSO ERM framework and adopting a stakeholder rather than a shareholder maximization perspective. I submit that companies that choose to pull back on CSR or sustainability programs in response to the President’s purported pro-business agenda will actually hurt both shareholders and stakeholders.

February 16, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

These Reasons Social Benefit Entities Hurt Business and Philanthropy Will Blow Your Mind

I suspect click-bait headline tactics don't work for business law topics, but I guess now we will see. This post is really just to announce that I have a new paper out in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law related to our First Annual (I hope) Business Law Prof Blog Conference co-blogger Joan Heminway discussed here. The paper, The End of Responsible Growth and Governance?: The Risks Posed by Social Enterprise Enabling Statutes and the Demise of Director Primacy, is now available here.

To be clear, my argument is not that I don't like social enterprise. My argument is that as well-intentioned as social enterprise entity types are, they are not likely to facilitate social enterprise, and they may actually get in the way of social-enterprise goals.  I have been blogging about this specifically since at least 2014 (and more generally before that), and last year I made this very argument on a much smaller scale.  Anyway, I hope you'll forgive the self-promotion and give the paper a look.  Here's the abstract: 

Social benefit entities, such as benefit corporations and low-profit limited liability companies (or L3Cs) were designed to support and encourage socially responsible business. Unfortunately, instead of helping, the emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy run the risk of derailing large-scale socially responsible business decisions. This could have the parallel impacts of limiting business leader creativity and risk taking. In addition to reducing socially responsible business activities, this could also serve to limit economic growth. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, all to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.

The potential harm from social benefit entities and eroding director primacy is not inevitable, and the challenges are not insurmountable. This essay is designed to highlight and explain these risks with the hope that identifying and explaining the risks will help courts avoid them. This essay first discusses the role and purpose of limited liability entities and explains the foundational concept of director primacy and the risks associated with eroding that norm. Next, the essay describes the emergence of social benefit entities and describes how the mere existence of such entities can serve to further erode director primacy and limit business leader discretion, leading to lost social benefit and reduced profit making. Finally, the essay makes a recommendation about how courts can help avoid these harms.

February 13, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Lawyering, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Comment Responses, Benefit Corps., and Planned Obsolescence

On a previous post about Etsy dropping its B corp. certification, because of the B Lab requirement to convert to a public benefit corporation, I received the following comments:

  • "I simply believe that, in most ways, being a public benefit entity is more about a marketing strategy than a business plan." (Tom N.)
  • "I had my students read the NY Times articles on Etsy as a part of their last class in my clinic this semester (thanks to my fellow Joe Pileri who alerted me to the article). We represent social enterprises in the clinic so this was a perfect wrap-up. The questions that I posed to my students: what social enterprise isn't a soft target like Etsy? Won't they all eventually cave to profit maximization?" (Alicia Plerhopes)
  • "I agree with To[m] N ... Also, no theory of CSR actually requires an explicit weighting of the various stakeholders of a firm, so in reality, if the interests of shareholders are receiving the greatest weight, then Milton Friedman was right all along!" (Enrique)

I wanted to respond to these thoughtful comments, briefly, above the line.

Tom, I think the marketing benefits of becoming a PBC, currently, are weak. How many of your non-lawyer friends know what a public benefit corporation is? Even among lawyers, if they know what the form is, their knowledge is usually limited, and they are usually quite skeptical. But I agree, that simply becoming a PBC, without more, does not get you very far and will not substitute for a good business plan. Becoming a PBC, however, may help in takeover situations and it may help change the shareholder wealth maximization norm among directors.

Alicia, You are right, I think, that publicly traded benefit corporations would often be soft targets. That said, their PBC status, in connection with other takeover defenses, could help them fend off unwanted advances. Given the history of social enterprise sell-outs, however, one does wonder how long these companies, public or private, can stay on mission.

Enrique, You may be correct on most theories of CSR not requiring an explicit weighting of stakeholder interests, but the benefit corporation statutes do generally require “consideration” or “balancing” of stakeholder interests. You are right, however, that the statutes do not give instructions on how much weight is to be given to each stakeholder group. The benefit corporation statutes do generally say that the purpose of benefit corporations must be to materially benefit “society and the environment;” and some of the statutes say/suggest that shareholders can not be the predominant interest.

While I am not a big proponent of the current benefit corporation statutes, I do commend the drafters for moving the conversation forward and taking action. And hopefully we can agree that something needs to be done about the current state and focus of many American businesses. This holiday season confirmed to me how cheaply most things are made these days and how poor customer service has become. Toys from my childhood era are outlasting most of the toys my wife and I buy our children. Appliances now seem to last 1/5 of the time they lasted a generation ago. Ignoring or mistreating the customer has become the rule. Even Apple, which I think of as one of the positive exceptions, is now being accused on planned obsolescence, and their customer service has declined over the years, in my view. Maybe the above makes sense from a purely financial perspective; maybe customers buy mainly on price. But I would argue that what made Apple great was holding themselves to an even higher standard of quality and innovation than their customers did initially. I am not sure if benefit corporation law will help businesses make more quality products, and treat their employees and customers better, but I do think we should give businesses the latitude to explore.

January 19, 2018 in Corporate Governance, CSR, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Call for Papers From The NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association

Call for Papers

The NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association invite you to submit papers: 4th Annual Conference of the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association at New York University, New York City, on September 14-15, 2018. Scholars from all disciplines are invited to apply, and we invite contributions that reflect the interdisciplinary character of BHR in theory and in practice.

We will also consider applications to participate as observers and discussants. Anyone interested in this possibility should submit their application in a few sentences to the email address below. Doctoral candidates are not eligible to present their research at this workshop, but they are welcome to attend. To discuss their work, PhD students may apply to the Young Researchers Summit (https://bhr.stern.nyu.edu/youngresearchers/). This is a workshop to discuss research-in-progress; papers must be unpublished at the time of presentation.

In addition to presenting a paper at the conference, participants are expected to read and be prepared to comment on and discuss the papers of other participants. The conference will be organized around three parallel working groups. Please indicate in your application to which of the three broad tracks you would like to contribute: (1) preventing, managing, and measuring BHR; (2) human rights in global supply chains and specific industry settings; or (3) conceptual approaches to BHR.

To apply, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to bhrnyu2018@gmail.com with the subject line Business & Human Rights Conference Proposal. Please include your name, affiliation, contact information, workshop theme preference, and short curriculum vitae. The proposals will be assessed by an organizing committee comprised of Dorothée Baumann-Pauly (NYU Stern, Program Chair and head of the committee), Justine Nolan (University of New South Wales), Penelope Simons (University of Ottawa), Kish Parella (Washington & Lee School of Law), Karin Buhmann (Copenhagen Business School), Merryl Lawry-White (Debevoise & Plimpton LLP), César González Cantón (CUNEF, Madrid), Humberto Cantú Rivera (University of Monterrey), Stephen Park (University of Connecticut), Michael Santoro (University of Santa Clara, President of the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association) and Anita Ramasastry (University of Washington School of Law, Vice-President of the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association).

The deadline for submission of abstracts is March 1, 2018. Scholars whose submissions are selected for the symposium will be notified no later than March 15. Full papers must be submitted by August 1.

About the Global BHR Scholars’ Association The Global Business and Human Rights Scholars’ Association is a non-profit, non-partisan membership association dedicated to bringing together a global and interdisciplinary group of scholars with an interest in the area of business and human rights, raising awareness of the human rights and other potentially harmful impacts of business activity, and promoting respect for international human rights among states, business enterprises, and other organizations. Membership is free and open to business and human rights scholars from every country and region of the world. More information about the Association and membership is available on our website: www.bhrscholarsassociation.org

January 17, 2018 in Call for Papers, Conferences, CSR, Human Rights, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

H & M Misses The Mark With An Ad Campaign, But Do Wall Street and Consumers Care?

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Swedish clothing giant H & M caused a huge stir this week with an ad campaign depicting a young black boy in a sweatshirt that proclaimed him the "Coolest Monkey In the Jungle."  The company's misstep is surprising given the public condemnations of the use of the word "monkey" in Europe over the past few years when soccer fans have used it as a slur against black players. Notwithstanding H & M's many apologies, several megastars have denounced the company and some have even pulled their fashion collaborations. As usual, several have called for boycotts of the retailer. But will all of this really matter? The sweatshirt was still for sale in the UK days for days after the controversy erupted, and the Weeknd, one of the megastars who vowed to never work with H & M, still has his 18-piece H & M collection available online and available for purchase on the store's  U.S. portal.

I'm headed out of the country tomorrow and in my quest for a new sweater, I glanced in the H & M store in my local mall earlier today. The store was packed and likely with fans of the artists who called for a boycott. No one was walking with picket signs outside. But as I have written about herehereherehere and at other times on this blog, I'm not sure that young American consumers--H & M's fast fashion demographic--have the staying power to sustain a boycott. Perhaps the star power behind this boycott will make a difference (but I doubt it).Wall Street hasn't punished the store either. The stock did not take a major hit. Moreover, CNBC has reported that in December, the company reported its biggest quarterly drop in ten years. This means that H & M's pre-existing financial woes will make it even more difficult to determine whether a boycott actually affected the bottom line. 

Time will tell regarding the success of this latest boycott effort but in the age of hashtag activism, I don't have much confidence in this latest boycott effort.

 

 

January 10, 2018 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Marketing, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Sex and Succession Planning- A New Agenda Item for Boards?

At a time when many boards may be thinking of tax planning and possible M & A deals, they may have to start focusing more on the unseemly topic of their executives' sex lives because the flood of terminations and resignations due to sexual misconduct shows no signs of slowing down. One of the most shocking but underreported terminations in 2017 related to VISA. The CEO, one year into the role, chose to terminate one of his most valuable executives after an anonymous tip about sexual misconduct.  He wanted his employees to know that the corporate culture and values mattered. Board members should look closely at the VISA example.

We will continue to see the rise of the #MeToo movement spurred on in part by the messaging from a star-studded task force  formed to address Hollywood issues and the establishment of a multimillion-dollar legal defense fund to help blue-collar workers. Even Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts addressed sexual harassment in the court system in his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.  More people than ever may now choose to come forward with claims of harassment or assault. Whether companies choose to terminate wrongdoers or the accused choose to resign "to spend more time with their families," it's a new day. As I've written here, companies will need to re-evaluate policies and training to navigate these landmines.

Board members will need to step up too. Boards of any size institution (including nonprofits) need to take the job of CEO succession planning seriously because the chief executive could leave, retire, or die. Boards must not only consider the possibility of a harassment scandal in the C-Suite but they must also worry about their fellow board members. Unfortunately, a KPMG study revealed that only 14% of board members believe they have a detailed succession plan for themselves. Members of the C-suite will also need to think more clearly about succession planning in the lower ranks. HR may have to redouble efforts to ensure that high-potential employees have no skeletons in the closet that have been swept under the rug. 

In the meantime, I and other former members of the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee have written an op-ed in the Boston Globe. Even if I had not co-authored the piece, as a former defense-side employment lawyer and compliance officer, I would recommend that company leaders take a look at it. Some of our recommendations for strengthening corporate culture are below:

1) have a trustworthy, independent system, with multiple reporting mechanisms, staffed with the proper skills to conduct swift, full, and fair investigations and to carry them to a just resolution, observing principles of confidentiality and discretion, and including ongoing protection of those who report;

2) make sure that there is a clear, credible anti-retaliation policy that protects accusers and witnesses who come forward in good faith;

3) require strong accountability for all levels of management for reporting and responding to complaints;

4) implement specific policies that direct bonuses, raises, and other incentives and opportunities to those who, in addition to meeting business targets, actively prevent and respond appropriately to harassment, retaliation, and other compliance problems. Consider clawbacks if unsupportive behavior later comes to light. Call out injurious behavior (without necessarily naming names) and credit exemplary behaviors;

5) periodically assess the culture and require an independent outside entity to confidentially administer anonymous surveys and interviews. The best of these use benchmarked and validated questions that can provide insight into the effectiveness of the compliance program and whether employees trust the system; and

6) make sure to involve unions and other formal and informal employee groups in developing new policies.

I wish all of our readers a happy and healthy new year. I wish board members and company executives good luck. 

January 3, 2018 in Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Will More Women on Boards Change Corporate Culture and Stem the Tide of Harassment Complaints?

Two weeks ago, I asked whether companies were wasting time on harassment training given the flood of accusations, resignations, and terminations over the past few weeks. Having served as a defense lawyer on these kinds of claims and conducted hundreds of trainings, I know that most men generally know right from wrong before the training (and some still do wrong). I also know that in many cases, people look the other way when they see or hear about the complaints, particularly if the accused is a superstar or highly ranked employee. Although most men do not have the power and connections to develop an alleged Harvey Weinstein-type "complicity machine" to manage payoffs and silence accusers, some members of management play a similar role when they ignore complaints or rumors of inappropriate or illegal behavior. 

The head in the sand attitude that executives and board members have displayed in the Weinstein matter has led to a lawsuit arguing that Disney knew or should have known of Weinstein's behavior. We may see more of these lawsuits now that women have less fear of speaking out and Time honored the "Silence Breakers" as the Person of the Year. As I read the Time  article and watched some of the "silence breakers" on television, it reminded me of 2002, when Time honored "The Whistleblowers." Those whistleblowers caused Congress to enact sweeping new protection under Sarbanes-Oxley.  Because of all of the publicity, companies around the country are now working with lawyers and human resources experts to review and revamp their antiharassment training and complaint mechanisms. As a result, we will likely see a spike in internal and external complaints. But do we need more than lawsuits? Would more women in the boardroom and the C-Suite make a difference in corporate culture in general and thereby lead to more gender equity?

Last week, Vĕra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice and Gender Equality put forth some proposals to redress the gender pay gap in Member States’ businesses. She recommends an increase in the number of women on boards for companies whose non-executive Boards are more than 60% male. These companies would be required to “prioritize” women when candidates of “equal merit” are being considered for a position. Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands have already previously rejected a similar proposal.

I'm generally not in favor of quotas because I think they produce a backlash. However, I know that many companies here and abroad will start to recruit more female directors and executives in an effort to appear on top of this issue. Will it work? We will soon see. After pressure from institutional investors such as BlackRock and State Street to increase diversity, women and minorities surpassed 50% of  S & P open board seats in 2017. Stay tuned. 

 

December 7, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Waterhouse Wilson in DePaul Law Review: Cooperatives: The First Social Enterprise

The DePaul Law Review recently posted the article, Cooperatives: The First Social Enterprise, written by my friend and colleague Elaine Waterhouse Wilson (West Virginia Univ. College of Law). I recommend checking it out. Here is an overview: 

As the cooperative and social enterprise movements merge, it is necessary to examine the legal and tax structures governing the entities to see if they help or hinder growth. If the ultimate decision is to support the growth of cooperatives as social enterprise, then those legal and tax structures that might impede this progress need to be re-examined.

This Article considers some of the issues that may impede the charitable sector in supporting the growth of the cooperative business model as a potential solution to issues of income inequality. To do so, the Article first defines a “cooperative.” Part II examines the definition of a cooperative from three different viewpoints: cooperative as social movement, cooperative as economic arrangement, and cooperative as legal construct. From these definitions, it is possible to identify those elements inherent in the cooperative model that might qualify as a tax-exempt purpose under the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) §501(c)(3). Part III reviews the definition of “charitable” for § 501(c)(3) purposes, specifically in the context of economic development and the support of workers. This Part demonstrates that many of the values inherent in the cooperative model are, in fact, charitable as that term is understood for federal tax purposes.

If a cooperative has charitable elements, however, then it should be possible for the charitable sector to support the cooperative move- ment. Part IV analyzes the possibilities and limitations of direct support by the charitable sector, including mission-related investing by charities and program-related investing by private foundations. In this regard, the cooperative can be viewed in many respects as an ex- isting analog to the new social enterprise forms, such as the benefit corporation or the L3C. Finally, Part V provides recommendations for changing both federal and state law to further support the cooperatibe movement in the charitable sector.

 

December 5, 2017 in CSR, Family Business, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 1, 2017

Etsy to Drop B Corp Certification

I have written about Etsy in at least three past posts: (1) Etsy becoming a certified B Corp, (2) Etsy going public, and (3) Delaware amending it's public benefit corporation laws (likely, in part, to help Etsy convert to a PBC, which Etsy would need to do to maintain its certification because it incorporated in a non-constituency statute state that does have a benefit corporation statute (Delaware)).

In May, some questioned whether Etsy would keep its social focus after a "management shakeup." In September, B Lab granted Etsy an extension on converting to a PBC. That article claims that B Lab would reset the deadline for conversion to 2019, if Etsy re-certified as a B Corp by the end of 2017 and would commit to converting to a PBC.

The 2019 date was 4 years from the 2015 Delaware PBC amendments (instead of 4 years from Etsy's first certification). One of B Lab's co-founder reportedly said that the statutory amendments were needed because the original 2013 version of the Delaware PBC law was "perfectly fine for private companies and unworkable for public companies."

Just a few days ago, however, Etsy announced that it would abandon its B Corp certification and not reincorporate as a Delaware PBC. Josh Silverman (CEO since the May shakeup) is quoted in that New York Times article as saying "Etsy’s greatest potential for impact is helping sellers — many of whom are women running small businesses — increase their sales." He sounds a lot like Milton Friedman's article The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits. Mr. Silverman also said that Etsy "had the best of intentions, but wasn’t great at tying that [sales] to impact....Being good doesn’t cut the mustard.”

Other than the New York Times article, the press around Etsy's announcement to let its B corp certification lapse seems to be relatively light. In the short-term at least, this move probably hurts B Lab and the social enterprise community more than it hurts Etsy given how few big companies are certified. In the long-term, however, Etsy may experience significant negative consequences, as it seems that this move to drop its certification is being done in conjunction with Etsy shedding a lot of the culture that made it a beloved company.  

Update: Perhaps Etsy is bracing for competition from Amazon. (Or maybe, and this is complete speculation on my part, Etsy is trying to make itself a more attractive acquisition target for Amazon, if Amazon realizes it cannot replicate Etsy on its own. Now, it is debatable whether Etsy is more valuable with or without its B Corp certification). 

December 1, 2017 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (3)