Friday, December 4, 2020
Did A Child Slave Help Make Your Chocolate Bar and If So, Who Should Be Responsible? The Supreme Court and Nestle v. Doe
If you’re sipping some hot chocolate while reading this post or buying your Hanukah or Christmas candy, chances are you’re consuming a product made with cocoa beans harvested by child slaves in Africa. Almost twenty years ago, the eight largest chocolate companies, a US Senator, a Congressman, the Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, NGOs, and the ILO pledged through the Harkin Engel Protocol to eliminate “the worst forms of” child slavery and forced labor in supply chains. In 2010, after seeing almost no progress, government representatives fom the US, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast released a Framework of Action to support the implementation and to reduce the use of child and forced labor by 70% by 2020. But, the number of child slaves has actually increased.
2020 has come and almost gone and one of the Harkin Engel signatories, Nestle, and another food conglomerate, Cargill, had to defend themselves in front of the Supreme Court this week in a case filed in 2005 by former child slaves. The John Does were allegedly kidnapped in Mali and forced to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, where they worked 12-14 hours a day in 100-degree weather, spoke a different language from the farmers, lived off dirty water and bowls of rice, and were never paid. According to counsel for the Respondents who gave a debrief earlier this week, the children were locked up at night, told to work or starve, whipped, and when one tried to escape, his feet were slashed and then hot chilis were rubbed into his soles. Respondents sued under the Alien Tort Statute, which Congress passed in 1789 to allow foreign citizens to sue in US federal courts for violations of “the law of nations” to avoid international tensions. In two recent cases, the Court has limited the use of the ATS against foreign corporations sued for acts against foreign plaintiffs because of jurisdictional grounds and ruled that foreign corporations were not subject to the ATS. But the Nestle and Cargill case is different. Respondents sued a US company and the US arm of a Swiss company. (Click here for access to the briefs and here to listen to the oral argument.) For an excellent symposium on the issues see here.
Respondents claim that the companies provided money and resources to the farmers in Africa and knew that child slaves harvested their cocoa. The two questions before the Court were:
- May an aiding and abetting claim against a domestic corporation brought under the Alien Tort Statute overcome the extraterritoriality bar where the claim is based on allegations of general corporate activity in the United States and where the Respondents cannot trace the alleged harms, which occurred abroad at the hands of unidentified foreign actors, to that activity?
- Does the judiciary have the authority under the Alien Tort Statute to impose liability on domestic corporations?
To those who obsess about business and human rights and ESG issues like I do, this case has huge potential implications. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve written more than half a dozen posts, law review articles, and an amicus brief on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals disclosures, which purport to inform consumers about the use of forced labor and child slaves in the harvesting of tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. I’ve been skeptical of those disclosure rules that don’t have real penalties. The Nestle case could change all of that by crafting a cognizable cause of action.
To my surprise, the Justices weren’t completely hostile to the thought of corporate liability under the ATS. Here are some of the more telling questions to the counsel for the companies:
Justice Alito: Mr. Katyal, many of your arguments lead to results that are pretty hard to take. So suppose a U.S. corporation makes a big show of supporting every cause de jure but then surreptitiously hires agents in Africa to kidnap children and keep them in bondage on a plantation so that the corporation can buy cocoa or coffee or some other agricultural product at bargain prices. You would say that the victims who couldn't possibly get any recovery in the courts of the country where they had been held should be thrown out of court in the United States, where this corporation is headquartered and does business?
Justice Breyer: …I don't see why exempt all corporations, including domestic corporations, from this -- the scope of the statute.
Justice Kagan: If you could bring a suit against 10 slaveholders, when those 10 slaveholders form a corporation, why can’t you bring a suit against the corporation?
Justice Kavanaugh: The Alien Tort Statute was once an engine of international human rights protection. Your position, however, would allow suits by aliens only against individuals, as you've said, and only for torts international law recognized that occurred in the United States. And Professor Koh's amicus brief on behalf of former government officials, for example, says that your position would "gut the statute." So why should we do that?
Here are some of the more interesting questions to the government, which supports the companies’ positions against application of the ATS to corporations:
Chief Justice Roberts: We don't have objections from foreign countries in this case. As far as we can tell, they're perfectly comfortable having U.S. citizens, U.S. corporations hailed into their U -- in U.S. courts. What should we make of that, and doesn't that suggest we ought to be a little more -- a little less cautious about finding a cause of action here?
Justice Breyer: …what’s new about suing corporations? When I looked it up once, there were 180 ATS lawsuits against corporations. Most of them lost but on other grounds. So why not sue a domestic corporation? You can't sue the individual because, in my hypothetical, the individuals have all moved to Lithuania. All you have is the corporate assets in the bank and minutes that prove it was a corporate decision. What's new about it? Why is it creating a form of action?
Justice Alito: Won't your arguments about aiding and abetting and extraterritoriality all lead to essentially the same result as holding that a domestic corporation cannot be sued under the ATS? Corporations always act through natural persons, so if a corporation can't aid and abet, there -- there will be only a sliver of activity where they could be responsible under respondeat superior, isn't that true?
Justice Amy Coney Barrett: You say that the focus of the tort should be the primary conduct, so, here, what was happening in Cote d'Ivoire, rather than the aiding and abetting, which you characterize as secondary. But why should that be so? I mean, let's imagine you have a U.S. corporation or even a U.S. individual that is making plans to facilitate the use of child slaves, you know, making phone calls, sending money specifically for that purpose, writing e-mails to that effect.Why isn't that conduct that occurs in the United States something that touches and concerns, you know, or should be the focus of conduct, however you want to state the test?
Finally, here are some of the tough questions posed to counsel for the Respondents:
Justice Thomas: The TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] seems to suggest that Congress does not see the ATS the way you do. Obviously, there, you don't have corporate liability and you don't have aiding and abetting liability. So why shouldn't we take that as an indication that Congress sought limitations on -- on the ATS jurisdiction?
Justice Breyer: Assume that there is corporate liability for domestic corporations. Assume that there is aiding and abetting liability. Now what counts as aiding and abetting for purposes of this statute? When I read through your complaint, it seemed to me that all or virtually all of your complaint amount to doing business with these people.They help pay for the farm. And that's about it.And they knowingly do it. Well, unfortunately, child labor, it's terrible, but it exists throughout the world in many, many places. And if we take this as the norm, particularly when Congress is now working in the area, that will mean throughout the world this is the norm. And I don't know, but I have concern that treating this allegation, the six that you make here, as aiding and abetting falling within that term for purposes of this statute, if other nations do the same, and we do the same, could have very, very significant effects. I'm just saying I'm worried about that.
Justice Alito: So, after 15 years, is it too much to ask that you allege specifically that the -- the defendants involved -- the defendants who are before us here specifically knew that forced child labor was being used on the farms or farm cooperatives with which they did business? Is that too much to ask?
To be fair, Nestle and Cargill have worked to remedy these issues. Nestle’s 2019 Shared Values Report tracks its commitments to individuals and families, communities, and the planet to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Among other things, the report highlights Nestle's work to reduce human rights abuses and links to its December 2019 report on child labor and cocoa farms. The company touts its progress but admits it has a long way to go. Cargill has a separate Cocoa Sustainability Progress Report, which describes its 2012 Cargill Cocoa Promise for capacity building and a more transparent supply chain. But is it enough?
In any event, we won’t know what the Court decides until Spring. In the meantime, despite the best efforts of the companies, almost two million children still work in the cocoa harvesting business and most aren’t kidnapped anymore. They need the work. The local governments have taken notice in part due to the terrible publicity from the media. Allegedly, however, Hershey and Mars are trying to avoid the $400 a ton premium that the West African governments are levying to provide more funding for the farmers. The companies deny these allegations. But there’s now a chocolate war. This means your chocolate may get more expensive, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
How will this all shake out? There’s a chance that the Court could find for the Respondents. More likely, though advocates will focus on convincing Congress to expand the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to include corporations. Some NGOs are already talking about increasing consumer awareness and spurring boycotts. Perhaps, advocates will put pressure on the Biden administration to ban the import on chocolate harvested with child labor, similar to the ban on some products produced by Uighurs in China.I expect that there will be a lot of lobbying at the state and federal level to deal with the larger issue of whether corporations that have some of the rights of natural persons should also have the responsibilities. Boards and companies should get prepared. In the meantime, do you plan to give up chocolate?
Friday, October 23, 2020
It’s hard to believe that the US will have an election in less than two weeks. Three years ago, a month after President Trump took office, I posted about CEOs commenting on his executive order barring people from certain countries from entering the United States. Some branded the executive order a “Muslim travel ban” and others questioned whether the CEOs should have entered into the political fray at all. Some opined that speaking out on these issues detracted from the CEOs’ mission of maximizing shareholder value. But I saw it as a business decision - - these CEOs, particularly in the tech sector, depended on the skills and expertise of foreign workers.
That was 2017. In 2018, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, told the largest companies in the world that “to prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society…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.” Fink’s annual letter to CEOs carries weight; BlackRock had almost six trillion dollars in assets under management in 2018, and when Fink talks, Wall Street listens. Perhaps emboldened by the BlackRock letter, one year later, 181 CEOs signed on to the Business Roundtable's Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which “modernized” its position on the shareholder maximization norm. The BRT CEOs promised to invest in employees, deal ethically and fairly with suppliers, and embrace sustainable business practices. Many observers, however, believed that the Business Roundtable statement was all talk and no action. To see how some of the signatories have done on their commitments as of last week, see here.
Then came 2020, a year like no other. The United States is now facing a global pandemic, mass unemployment, a climate change crisis, social unrest, and of course an election. During the Summer of 2020, several CEOs made public statements on behalf of themselves and their companies about racial unrest, with some going as far as to proclaim, “Black Lives Matter.” I questioned these motives in a post I called “"Wokewashing and the Board." While I admired companies that made a sincere public statement about racial justice and had a real commitment to look inward, I was skeptical about firms that merely made statements for publicity points. I wondered, in that post, about companies rushing to implement diversity training, retain consultants, and appoint board members to either curry favor with the public or avoid the shareholder derivative suits facing Oracle, Facebook, and Qualcomm. How well had they thought it out? Meanwhile, I noted that my colleagues who have conducted diversity training and employee engagement projects for years were so busy that they were farming out work to each other. Now the phones aren’t ringing as much, and when they are ringing, it’s often to cancel or postpone training.
Why? Last month, President Trump issued the Executive Order on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping. As the President explained:
today . . . many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual. This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans ... Therefore, it shall be the policy of the United States not to promote race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating in the Federal workforce or in the Uniformed Services, and not to allow grant funds to be used for these purposes. In addition, Federal contractors will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees.
The Order then provides a hotline process for employees to raise concerns about their training. Whether you agree with the statements in the Order or not -- and I recommend that you read it -- it had a huge and immediate effect. The federal government is the largest procurer of goods and services in the world. This Order applies to federal contractors and subcontractors. Some of those same companies have mandates from state law to actually conduct training on sexual harassment. Often companies need to show proof of policies and training to mount an affirmative defense to discrimination claims. More important, while reasonable people can disagree about the types and content of diversity training, there is no doubt that employees often need training on how to deal with each other respectfully in the workplace. (For a thought-provoking take on a board’s duty to monitor diversity training by co-blogger Stefan Padfield, click here.)
Perhaps because of the federal government’s buying power, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce felt compelled to act. On October 15th, the Chamber and 150 organizations wrote a letter to the President stating:
As currently written, we believe the E.O. will create confusion and uncertainty, lead to non-meritorious investigations, and hinder the ability of employers to implement critical programs to promote diversity and combat discrimination in the workplace. We urge you to withdraw the Executive Order and work with the business and nonprofit communities on an approach that would support appropriate workplace training programs ... there is a great deal of subjectivity around how certain content would be perceived by different individuals. For example, the definition of “divisive concepts” creates many gray areas and will likely result in multiple different interpretations. Because the ultimate threat of debarment is a possible consequence, we have heard from some companies that they are suspending all D&I training. This outcome is contrary to the E.O.’s stated purpose, but an understandable reaction given companies’ lack of clear guidance. Thus, the E.O. is already having a broadly chilling effect on legitimate and valuable D&I training companies use to foster inclusive workplaces, help with talent recruitment, and remain competitive in a country with a wide range of different cultures. … Such an approach effectively creates two sets of rules, one for those companies that do business with the government and another for those that do not. Federal contractors should be left to manage their workforces and workplaces with a minimum amount of interference so long as they are compliant with the law.
It’s rare for the Chamber to make such a statement, but it was bold and appropriate. Many of the Business Roundtable signatories are also members of the U.S. Chamber, and on the same day, the BRT issued its own statement committing to programs to advance racial equity and justice. BRT Chair and WalMart CEO Doug McMillon observed, “the racial inequities that exist for many Black Americans and people of color are real and deeply rooted . . These longstanding systemic challenges have too often prevented access to the benefits of economic growth and mobility for too many, and a broad and diverse group of Americans is demanding change. It is our employees, customers and communities who are calling for change, and we are listening – and most importantly – we are taking action.” Now that's a stakeholder maximization statement if I ever heard one.
Those who thought that some CEOs went too far in protesting the Muslim ban, may be even more shocked by the BRT’s statements about the police. The BRT also has a subcommittee to address racial justice issues and noted that “For Business Roundtable CEOs, this agenda is an important step in addressing barriers to equity and justice . . . This summer we took on the urgent need for policing reform. We called on Congress to adopt higher federal standards for policing, to track whether police departments and officers have histories of misconduct, and to adopt measures to hold abusive officers accountable. Now, with announcement of this broader agenda, CEOs are supporting policies and undertaking initiatives to address several other systems that contribute to large and growing disparities.”
Now that stakeholders have seen so many of these social statements, they have asked for more. Last week, a group of executives from the Leadership Now Project issued a statement supporting free and fair elections. However, as Bennett Freeman, former Calvert executive and Clinton cabinet member noted, no Fortune 500 CEOs have signed on to that statement. Yesterday, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) sent a letter to 200 CEOs, including some members of the BRT asking for their support. ICCR asked that they endorse:
- Active support for free and fair elections
- A call for a thorough and complete counting of all ballots
- A call for all states to ensure a fair election
- A condemnation of any tactics that could be construed as voter intimidation
- Assurance that, should the incumbent Administration lose the election, there will be a peaceful transfer of power
- Ensure that lobbying activities and political donations support the above
Is this a pipe dream? Do CEOs really want to stick their necks out in a tacit criticism of the current president’s equivocal statements about his post-election plans? Now that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has spoken about the importance of respect for the democratic process and the peaceful transfer of power, perhaps more executives will make public statements. But should they? On the one hand, the markets need stability. Perhaps Dimon was actually really focused on shareholder maximization after all. Nonetheless, Freeman and others have called for a Twitter campaign to urge more CEOs to speak out. My next post will be up on the Friday after the election and I’ll report back about the success of the hashtag activism effort. In the meantime, stay tuned and stay safe.
October 23, 2020 in Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Legislation, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, October 2, 2020
No. You didn't miss Part 1. I wrote about Weinstein clauses last July. Last Wednesday, I spoke with a reporter who had read that blog post. Acquirors use these #MeToo/Weinstein clauses to require target companies to represent that there have been no allegations of, or settlement related to, sexual misconduct or harassment. I look at these clauses through the lens of a management-side employment lawyer/compliance officer/transactional drafting professor. It’s almost impossible to write these in a way that’s precise enough to provide the assurances that the acquiror wants or needs.
Specifically, the reporter wanted to know whether it was unusual that Chevron had added this clause into its merger documents with Noble Energy. As per the Prospectus:
Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, (i), no allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct have been made against any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above through the Company’s anonymous employee hotline or any formal human resources communication channels at the Company, and (ii) there are no actions, suits, investigations or proceedings pending or, to the Company’s knowledge, threatened related to any allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above. Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, neither the Company nor any of its Subsidiaries have entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above.
Whether I agree with these clauses or not, I can see why Chevron wanted one. After all, Noble’s former general counsel left the company in 2017 to “pursue personal interests” after accusations that he had secretly recorded a female employee with a video camera under his desk. To its credit, Noble took swift action, although it did give the GC nine million dollars, which to be fair included $8.3 million in deferred compensation. Noble did not, however, exercise its clawback rights. Under these circumstances, if I represented Chevron, I would have asked for the same thing. Noble’s anonymous complaint mechanisms went to the GC’s office. I’m sure Chevron did its own social due diligence but you can never be too careful. Why would Noble agree? I have to assume that the company’s outside lawyers interviewed as many Noble employees as possible and provided a clean bill of health. Compared with others I’ve seen, the Chevron Weinstein clause is better than most.
Interestingly, although several hundred executives have left their positions due to allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment since 2017, only a small minority of companies use these Weinstein clauses. Here are a few:
Except in each case, as has not had and would not reasonably be expected to have, individually or in the aggregate, a Company Material Adverse Effect, to the Knowledge of the Company, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against (A) any officer or director of the Acquired Companies or (B) any employee of the Acquired Companies who, directly or indirectly, supervises at least eight (8) other employees of the Acquired Companies, and (ii) the Acquired Companies have not entered into any settlement agreement related to allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by an employee, contractor, director, officer or other Representative.
- Merger between Genuine Parts Company, Rhino SpinCo, Inc., Essendant Inc., and Elephant Merger Sub Corp.:
To the knowledge of GPC, in the last five (5) years, no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any current SpinCo Business Employee who is (i) an executive officer or (ii) at the level of Senior Vice President or above.
- AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER BY AND AMONG WORDSTREAM, INC., GANNETT CO., INC., ORCA MERGER SUB, INC. AND SHAREHOLDER REPRESENTATIVE SERVICES LLC:
(i) The Company is not party to a settlement agreement with a current or former officer, employee or independent contractor of the Company or its Affiliates that involves allegations relating to sexual harassment or misconduct. To the Knowledge of the Company, in the last eight (8) years, no allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made against any current or former officer or employee of the Company or its Affiliates.
- AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER By and Among RLJ ENTERTAINMENT, INC., AMC NETWORKS INC., DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT HOLDINGS LLC and RIVER MERGER SUB INC.:
(c) To the Company’s Knowledge, in the last ten (10) years, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries, and (ii) the Company and its Subsidiaries have not entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by an officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries.
Here are just a few questions:
- What's the definition of "sexual misconduct"? Are the companies using a legal definition? Under which law? None of the samples define the term.
- What happens of the company handbook or policies do not define "sexual misconduct"?
- How do the parties define "sexual harassment"? Are they using Title VII, state law, case law, their diversity training decks, the employee handbook? None of the samples define the term.
- What about the definition of "allegation"? Is this an allegation through formal or informal channels (as employment lawyers would consider it)? Chevron gets high marks here.
- Have the target companies used the best knowledge qualifiers to protect themselves?
- How will the target company investigate whether the executives and officers have had “allegations”? Should the company lawyers do an investigation of every executive covered by the representation to make sure the company has the requisite “knowledge”? If the deal documents don't define "knowledge," should we impute knowledge?
- What about those in the succession plan who may not be in the officer or executives ranks?
Will we see more of these in the future? I don’t know. But I sure hope that General Motors has some protection in place after the most recent allegations against Nikola’s founder and former chairman, who faces sexual assault allegations from his teenage years. Despite allegations of fraud and sexual misconduct, GM appears to be moving forward with the deal, taking advantage of Nikola’s decreased valuation after the revelation of the scandals.
I’ll watch out for these #MeToo clauses in the future. In the meantime, I’ll ask my transactional drafting students to take a crack at reworking them. If you assign these clauses to your students, feel free to send me the work product at email@example.com.
Take care and stay safe.
October 2, 2020 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Lawyering, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, September 18, 2020
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the role of compliance officers and general counsel working for Big Pharma in Where Were the Gatekeepers- Part 1. As a former compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I wondered how and if those in-house sentinels were raising alarm bells about safety concerns related to rushing a COVID-19 vaccine to the public. Now that I’ve watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” I’m wondering the same thing about the lawyers and compliance professionals working for the social media companies.
The documentary features some of the engineers and executives behind the massive success of Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms. Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, is the star of the documentary and the main whistleblower. He raised concerns to 60 Minutes in 2017 and millions have watched his TED Talk. He also testified before Congress in 2019 about how social media companies use algorithms and artificial intelligence to manipulate behavior. Human rights organizations have accused social media platforms of facilitating human rights abuses. Facebook and others have paid billions in fines for privacy violations. Advertisers boycotted over Facebook and hate speech. But nothing has slowed their growth.
The documentary explicitly links the rising rate of youth depression, suicide, and risk taking behavior to social media’s disproportionate influence. Most of my friends who have watched it have already decreased their screen time or at least have become more conscious of it. Maybe they are taking a cue from those who work for these companies but don’t allow their young children to have any screen time. Hmmm …
I’ve watched the documentary twice. Here are some of the more memorable quotes:
”If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”
“They sell certainty that someone will see your advertisement.”
“It’s not our data that’s being sold. They are building models to predict our actions based on the click, what emotions trigger you, what videos you will watch.”
“Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.”
”It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception that is the product.”
“Social media is a drug.”
”There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
”Social media is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.”
”The very meaning of culture is manipulation.”
“Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them.”
“These services are killing people and causing people to kill themselves.”
“When you go to Google and type in “climate change is,” you will get a different result based on where you live … that’s a function of … the particular things Google knows about your interests.”
“It’s 2.7 billion Truman Show. Each person has their own reality, their own facts.”
“It worries me that an algorithm I worked on is increasing polarization in society.”
“Fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than real news.”
“People have no idea what is true and now it’s a matter of life and death.”
“Social media amplifies exponential gossip and exponential hearsay to the point that we don’t know what’s true no matter what issue we care about.”
“If you want to control the operation of a country, there’s never been a better tool than Facebook.”
"The Russians didn't hack Facebook. What they did was use the tools Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users, and they applied it to a nefarious purpose."
“What [am I] most worried about? In the short term horizon? Civil War.”
“How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix”?
“You could shut down the service and destroy . . . $20 billion in shareholder value and get sued, but you can’t in practice put the genie back in the model.”
“We need to accept that it’s ok for companies to be focused on making money but it’s not ok when there’s no regulation, no rules, and no competition and companies are acting as de facto governments and then saying ‘we can regulate ourselves.’ “
“There’s no fiscal reason for these companies to change.”
This brings me back to the beginning of my post. We’ve heard from former investors, engineers, and algorithm magicians from these companies, but where were and are the gatekeepers? What were they doing to sound the alarm? But maybe I’m asking the wrong question. As Ann Lipton’s provocative post on Doyle, Watson, and the Purpose of the Corporation notes, “Are you looking at things from outside the corporation, in terms of structuring our overall legal and societal institutions? Or are you looking at things from inside the corporation, in terms of how corporate managers should understand their jobs and their own roles?”
If you’re a board member or C-Suite executive of a social media company, you have to ask yourself, what if hate speech, fake news, polarization, and addiction to your product are actually profitable? What if perpetuating rumors that maximize shareholder value is the right decision? Why would you change a business model that works for the shareholders even if it doesn’t work for the rest of society? If social media is like a drug, it’s up to parents to instill the right values in their children. I get it. But what about the lawyers and the people in charge of establishing, promoting, and maintaining an ethical culture? To be clear, I don’t mean in any way to impugn the integrity of lawyers and compliance professionals who work for social media companies. I have met several at business and human rights events and privacy conferences who take the power of the tech industry very seriously and advocate for change.
The social media companies have a dilemma. Compliance officers talk about “tone at the top,” “mood in the middle,” and the “buzz at the bottom.” Everyone in the organization has to believe in the ethical mandate as laid out and modeled by leadership. Indeed, CEOs typically sign off on warm, fuzzy statements about ethical behavior in the beginning of the Code of Conduct. I’ve drafted quite a few and looked at hundreds more. Notably, Facebook’s Code of Conduct, updated just a few weeks ago, has no statement of principle from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and seems very lawyerlike. Perhaps there’s a more robust version that employees can access where Zuckerberg extols company values. Twitter’s code is slightly better and touches more on ethical culture. Google’s Code states, “Our products, features, and services should make Google more useful for all our users. We have many different types of users, from individuals to large businesses, but one guiding principle: “Is what we are offering useful?”’ My question is “useful” to whom? I use Google several times a day, but now I have to worry about what Google chooses to show me. What's my personal algorithm? I’ve been off of Facebook and Instagram since January 2020 and I have no plans to go back.
Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman uttered the famous statement, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” The social media companies have written the rules of the game. There is no competition. Now that the “Social Dilemma” is out, there really isn’t any more deception or fraud.
Do the social media companies actually have a social responsibility to do better? In 2012, Facebook’s S-1 proclaimed that the company’s mission was to “make the world more open and connected.” Facebook’s current Sustainability Page claims that, “At Facebook, our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Why is it, then that in 2020, people seem more disconnected than ever even though they are tethered to their devices while awake and have them in reach while asleep? Facebook’s sustainability strategy appears to be centered around climate change and supply chain issues, important to be sure. But is it doing all that it can for the sustainability of society? Does it have to? I have no answer for that. All I can say is that you should watch the documentary and judge for yourself.
September 18, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Family, Film, Human Rights, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Psychology, Shareholders, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, September 14, 2020
Lawyers as leaders.
Reputation is sacred.
So, guard it closely.
In my new role as Interim Director of UT Law's Institute for Professional Leadership (IPL, for short), I have made a commitment to sit in on the classes in the Institute's curriculum. One of them, Lawyers as Leaders, is the flagship course--the course that catalyzed the establishment of the IPL. This semester, it is being hosted on Zoom.
In that course this afternoon, the students wrestled with attorney misconduct--and how to punish it. During the first hour of the two-hour session, they spent time in breakout rooms discussing three cases that involved different lapses of professional responsibility rules (and, in some cases, criminal law rules). They were asked to report out/comment on several things about those cases, including the propriety and relative severity of the penalties imposed on the respective transgressor attorneys. During the second hour of class, the students had the opportunity to listen to one of the three offenders tell his story and share what he learned about leadership through his misconduct. They also were invited to ask him questions.
The story that the students heard was the one involved in this case. But they heard about the facts in a way that the Tennessee Supreme Court could not possibly convey them. And they heard about the personal family tragedy that intersected with the case.
The class was a very moving experience for me--even though I have heard the story told before. I can only hope that the learning done by the students was as powerful as the teaching. The haiku that introduces this post only covers the top line; there is so much more richness there that can only be appreciated by hearing the story in person. I found myself wishing that I had been afforded the opportunity to learn about professional responsibility and leadership in a similarly compelling way during my law school career. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this program.
Saturday, September 5, 2020
I think that the GCs at Big Pharma have hacked into my Zoom account. First, some background. Earlier this week, I asked my students in UM’s Lawyering in a Pandemic course to imagine that they were the compliance officers or GCs at the drug companies involved in Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership formed to find a vaccine for COVID-19 in months, rather than years. I asked the students what they would do if they thought that the scientists were cutting corners to meet the government’s deadlines. Some indicated that they would report it internally and then externally, if necessary.
I hated to burst their bubbles, but I explained that the current administration hasn’t been too welcoming to whistleblowers. I had served on a non-partisan, multi-stakeholder Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee when President Trump came into office, which was disbanded shortly thereafter. For over a year after that, I received calls from concerned scientists asking where they could lodge complaints. With that background, I wanted my students to think about how company executives could reasonably would report on cutting corners to the government that was requiring the “warp speed” results in the first place. We didn’t even get into the potential ethical issues related to lawyers as whistleblowers.
Well the good news is that Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi announced on Friday that they have signed a pledge to make sure that they won’t jeopardize public safety by ignoring protocols. Apparently, the FDA may be planning its own statement to reassure the public. I look forward to seeing the statements when they’re released, but these companies have been working on these drugs for months. Better late than never, but why issue this statement now? Perhaps the lawyers and compliance officers – the gatekeepers – were doing their jobs and protecting the shareholders and the stakeholders. Maybe the scientists stood their ground. We will never know how or why the companies made this decision, but I’m glad they did. The companies hadn’t announced this safety pledge yet when I had my class and at the time, almost none of the students said they would get the vaccine. Maybe the pledge will change their minds.
Although the drug companies seem to be doing the right thing, I have other questions about Kodak. During the same class, I had asked my students to imagine that they were the GC, compliance officer, or board member at Kodak. Of course, some of my students probably didn’t even know what Kodak is because they take pictures with their phones. They don’t remember Kodak for film and cameras and absolutely no one knows Kodak as a pharmaceutical company. Perhaps that’s why everyone was stunned when Kodak announced a $765 million federal loan to start producing drug ingredients, especially because it’s so far outside the scope of its business. After all, the company makes chemicals for film development and manufacturing but not for life saving drugs. Kodak has struggled over the past few years because it missed the boat on digital cameras and has significant debt, filing for bankruptcy in 2012. It even dabbled in cryptocurrency for a few months in 2018. Not the first choice to help develop a vaccine.
To be charitable, Kodak did own a pharmaceutical company for a few years in the 80’s. But its most recent 10-K states that “Kodak is a global technology company focused on print and advanced materials and chemicals. Kodak provides industry-leading hardware, software, consumables and services primarily to customers in commercial print, packaging, publishing, manufacturing and entertainment.”
The Kodak deal became even more newsworthy because the company issued 1.75 million in stock and options to the CEO and other grants to company insiders and board members before the public announcement of the federal loan. The CEO had only had the job for a year. I haven’t seen any news reports of insiders complaining or refusing the grants. In fact, the day after the announcement of the loan, a Kodak board member made a $116 million dollar donation to charity he founded. Understandably, the news of the deal caused Kodak’s shares to soar. Insiders profited, and the SEC started asking questions after looking at records of the stock trades.
Alas, the deal is on hold as the SEC investigates. The White House’s own trade advisor has said that this may be “one of the dumbest decisions by executives in corporate history.” I’m not sure about that, but there actually may be nothing to see here. Some believe that there was a snafu with the timing of the announcement and that the nuances of Reg FD may get Kodak off the hook .I wonder though, what the gatekeepers were doing? Did the GC, compliance officer, or any board member ask the obvious questions? “Why are we doing something so far outside of our core competency?” They didn’t even get the digital camera thing right and that is Kodak’s core competency. Did anyone ask “should we really be issuing options and grants right before the announcement? Isn’t this loan material, nonpublic information and shouldn’t we wait to trade?”
I’ll keep watching the Kodak saga and will report back. In coming posts, I’ll write about other compliance and corporate governance mishaps. In the meantime, stay safe and please wear your masks.
September 5, 2020 in Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, August 3, 2020
Drake University invites applications from entry level and lateral candidates for a tenure-track Assistant/Associate Professor of Law position beginning in the 2021-22 academic year. We are interested in candidates with demonstrated interest or experience in Technology Law. Applicants must hold a J.D. degree (or the equivalent) and should have a record of academic excellence, substantial academic or practice experience, and a passion for teaching. Appointment rank will be determined commensurate with the candidate’s qualifications and experience.
In addition to service and scholarship, this position involves teaching courses such as Legal/Ethical Issues in Technology, Technology Law, Privacy Law, and related areas in both the Law School and the College of Arts & Sciences as well as advising law and undergraduate students and serving as a University resource on technology legal issues.
Drake University sustains a vibrant intellectual culture, and Des Moines has been recognized as the Best Place to Live (US News), the Best Place for Young Professionals (Forbes), and as the #1 Best U.S. City for Business (MarketWatch).
Drake University is an equal opportunity employer and actively seeks applicants who reflect the nation’s diversity. No applicant shall be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, religion, age, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetic information or veteran status. Diversity is one of Drake’s core values and applicants need to demonstrate an ability to work with individuals and groups of diverse backgrounds.
Confidential review of applications will begin immediately. Applications (including a letter of interest, a complete CV, teaching evaluations (if available), a diversity statement, and the names and addresses of at least three references) should be sent to Professor Ellen Yee, Chair, Faculty Appointments Committee, Drake University Law School, 2507 University Ave., Des Moines, IA 50311 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Drake University Law School invites applications from entry level and lateral candidates for a tenure-track or tenured Assistant/Associate/Professor of Law position beginning in the 2021-22 academic year. We are especially interested in candidates with demonstrated interest or experience in Contracts, Sales, Tax, Intellectual Property, and Family Law. Applicants must hold a J.D. degree (or the equivalent) and should have a record of academic excellence, substantial academic or practice experience, and a passion for teaching. Appointment rank will be determined commensurate with the candidate’s qualifications and experience.
Drake University Law School sustains a vibrant intellectual culture, and Des Moines has been recognized as the Best Place to Live (US News), the Best Place for Young Professionals (Forbes), and as the #1 Best U.S. City for Business (MarketWatch). The Law School features innovative and nationally recognized programs in agricultural law, constitutional law, legal research and writing, and practical training.
Drake University is an equal opportunity employer and actively seeks applicants who reflect the nation’s diversity. No applicant shall be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, religion, age, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetic information or veteran status. Diversity is one of Drake’s core values and applicants need to demonstrate an ability to work with individuals and groups of diverse socioeconomic, cultural, sexual orientation, disability, and/or ethnic backgrounds.
Confidential review of applications will begin immediately. Applications (including a letter of interest, a complete CV, teaching evaluations (if available), a diversity statement, and the names and addresses of at least three references) should be sent to Professor Ellen Yee, Chair, Faculty Appointments Committee, Drake University Law School, 2507 University Ave., Des Moines, IA 50311 or e-mail: email@example.com.
Wednesday, July 29, 2020
So, I knew about TEDx and TED Talks, but I just learned about TED-Ed today in viewing Professors George Siedel & Christine Ladwig’s “Ethical Dilemma: The Burger Murders” (here). If you’re planning to incorporate an ethics module into your business law courses this year, including their video and accompanying teaching materials could be a great, entertaining addition to your class that I think students would love. Along with their fun, short video, Siedel and Ladwig have provided teaching materials (here) that include multiple choice and open ended questions; a “dig deeper” piece; and, a guided discussion section. They posted only yesterday, and have already had 152,224 views and 744 comments! Check it out! And if you didn’t see my prior post on Siedel’s negotiation materials, check that out too (here)!
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
An abstract for Ethics of Legal Astuteness: Barring Class Actions Through Arbitration Clauses, written with Daniel T. Ostas and published in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal is below, and the article is here.
Recent Supreme Court cases empower firms to effectively bar class
action lawsuits through mandatory arbitration clauses included in
consumer adhesion and employment contracts. This article reviews
these legal changes and argues for economic self-restraint among
both corporate executives and corporate lawyers who advise them.
Arbitration has many virtues as it promises to reduce transaction costs
and to streamline economic exchange. Yet, the ethics of implementing
a legal strategy often requires self-restraint when one is in a position
of power, and always requires respect for due process when issues of
human health, safety, and dignity are in play.
An abstract for Banking on the Cloud, written with David Fratto and Lee Reiners, and published in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law is below, and the article is here.
Cloud computing is fast becoming a ubiquitous part of today’s
economy for both businesses and individuals. Banks and financial
institutions are no exception. While it has many benefits, cloud
computing also has costs and introduces risks. Significant cloud
providers are single points of failure and, as such, are an important
new source of systemic risk in financial markets. Given this reality,
this article argues that such institutions should be considered critical
infrastructures and designated as systemically important financial
market utilities under Dodd-Frank’s Title VIII
Wednesday, July 15, 2020
In a past post (here), I mentioned stumbling (thankfully!!) into teaching in the area of Negotiation and Dispute Resolution while a PhD student focused on financial regulation. For so many reasons, the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies in the Ethics & Legal Studies Program at the Wharton Business School was truly a great blessing! So, I’m delighted to share with BLPB readers that applications for the Program’s incoming class of 2021 are now being accepted. If you – or someone you know – might be interested in learning more, an quick overview is provided below and an informational flyer here: Download Ethics&LegalStudiesDoctoralProgram
The Ethics & Legal Studies Doctoral Program at Wharton focuses on the study of ethics and law in business. It is designed to prepare graduates for tenure-track careers in university teaching and research at leading business schools, and law schools.
Our curriculum crosses many disciplinary boundaries. Students take a core set of courses in the area of ethics and law in business, along with courses in an additional disciplinary concentration such as law, management, philosophy/ethical theory, finance, marketing, or accounting. Students can take courses in other Penn departments and can pursue joint degrees. Additionally, our program offers flexibility in course offerings and research topics. This reflects the interdisciplinary nature of our Department and the diversity of our doctoral student backgrounds.
Faculty and student intellectual interests include a range of topics such as:
- legal theory • normative political theory • ethical theory • firm theory • law and economics • private law theory • penal theory • constitutional law • bankruptcy • corporate governance • corporate law • financial regulation • administrative law • empirical legal studies • blockchain and law • antitrust law • fraud and deception • environmental law and policy • corporate criminal law • corporate moral agency • corruption • behavioral ethics • negotiations.
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
Earlier today (July 14), Fordham University hosted a webinar entitled Reopening Justly or Just Reopening: Catholic Social Teaching, Universities & COVID-19.
Speakers on the topic of the ethics of reopening schools include the following theology professors:
- Christine Firer Hinze (Fordham)
- Gerald Beyer (Villanova)
- Craig Ford (St. Norbert)
- Kate Ward (Marquette)
Christine Firer Hinze discussed Catholic Social Thought, human dignity, and solidarity. She reminded us that reopening universities is literally a question of life and death, but is also a question of livelihood. Gerald Beyer stressed looking to the the latest science and considering the common good (the flourishing of all). Craig Ford commented on the reality that some universities may be facing financial collapse, that the pandemic is likely to be with us for a long while, and that there are no perfect solutions. Ford also suggested a focus on protecting those who are most vulnerable. Kate Ward talked about moral injury, lamentation, and redemption. A question and answer period --- including on the topics of racial justice, transparency, shared sacrifices and mental health --- followed opening remarks.
Tuesday, June 2, 2020
would train runners from all the schools in the region over the summer, then relentlessly compete against them in the fall, then bring them back together to train in the winter. His world was the runner’s world, in which your rival is your greatest friend.
At the time, I did not really care much for training; I just liked winning. Van was easily the most knowledgeable coach in our region, and I remember being somewhat frustrated that he would share his expertise with our competitors.
With winning races as my ultimate goal, any assistance to other runners was counterproductive. For me, competition was zero-sum; if someone else won, I lost. Van saw competition differently. Van saw competition not as the end, but as a means to the greater ends of self-discipline, community, and true excellence.
Cormac McCarthy, in his 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road, explores these competing views of competition. In this post-apocalyptic novel, an unnamed man and his son travel south over an ash-covered road, trying to outrun the harsh winter. Resources are scarce and many of the survivors have resorted to cannibalism.
The man reassures his son that they are two of the “good guys” because they do not eat fellow humans. Nevertheless, the man resists most of his son’s pleas to help others they encounter on the road, embracing a scarcity view of competition. The man admirably protects and shares with his son, but the man treats nearly everyone else with suspicion and violence. The father reminds his son to “always be on the lookout” and even after finding a cellar full of provisions, the father quickly turns his attention to trying to find another gun. His gun is down to its final bullet, so his power to fight off others is tenuous.
The man clearly loves his son, and the man appears well-intentioned in his attempts to do what is best for his son. But by trying to protect his son through selfishness, the man contributes to the cruel world that his son will inherit. The man tends to assume the worst of those they encounter on the road and, as a result, none of his compassion for his son spills over into the world at large. Selfishness, ruthless competition, and distrust leaves the world bleak and drains life of its meaning.
At the end of the novel, shortly after the boy’s father dies, the boy encounters another man. Following his father’s example, the boy points his pistol at the stranger. After a bit of conversation, the boy begins to let down his guard. But the boy remains a bit unsure, asking: “How do I know you are one of the good guys?” The stranger admits “You don’t. You’ll have to take your shot.” Unlike his father, the boy does not continue in distrust, and the boy does not resort to violence. The boy goes with the stranger.
The stranger rewards the boy’s trust by leaving a blanket—that they could use to help them survive—to wrap the boy’s dead “papa.” In a freezing world where survival is uncertain, this is an extreme act of kindness that strikes against cold utilitarianism. Even in a land of very limited resources, life means much more than simply using power to survive.
The boy and the stranger were both armed. The more powerful one could have killed the other and stolen his supplies. In a sense, the more powerful person would have “won” the competition, but he would have only secured a bit more time in a decidedly ugly world. In the novel, however, both the stranger and the boy risked a shortened life, but they seemed to gain beautiful friendship and the priceless experience of shared sacrifice.
Competition is not altogether evil. As Coach Van Townsend knew, healthy competition can be used to inspire and it can even help build community out of shared striving and respect. But when “winning” becomes the ultimate goal, and virtue is trampled, the world can quickly turn cruelly cold.
(Note: Anything insightful I have written was likely drawn from conversations with my brilliant literature professor brother. Anything foolish is of my own making.)
Sunday, April 19, 2020
In a reflection on the meaning of career success, a majority of my business ethics students mentioned happiness as a barometer.
“Happiness,” however, is an incredibly imprecise term. For example, here is over seventy-five minutes of Jennifer Frey (University of South Carolina, Philosophy) and Jonathan Masur (University of Chicago, Law) discussing happiness under two different definitions.
Frey, in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, considers happiness not as a private good, but rather as the highest common good. Happiness is enjoyed in community. True happiness according to Frey, is bound up in the cultivation of virtue and human excellence. Under Frey’s definition, happiness makes room for sacrifice and suffering as beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Masur, a self-described hedonist, seems to have a more psychological, subjective view of happiness. Masur defines happiness as positive feelings, and unhappiness as negative feelings. Masur acknowledges that happiness--maybe even the deepest happiness--can arise from relationships and altruistic behavior. Unlike Frey, however, Masur includes positive feelings that are artificially produced or arising from unvirtuous behavior as part of “happiness.” Masur sees happiness and living a good, moral life as often overlapping, but as not necessarily intertwined.
These are two different conceptions of happiness. I think we need seperate words for the different conceptions--perhaps joy and pleasure--though I do not think any two English words fully capture the differences.
Somewhat relatedly, this month, my neighborhood book club is reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Throughout the book, Huxley explores a future devoted to pleasure. In this world, a drug called soma, a sport called obstacle golf, and touch-engaging films called the "feelies" combine to drown out negative emotions. While the elimination of virtually all infectious diseases seems enviable in this moment, there is very little I admire in the brave new world---it seems incredibly shallow. Some of Aristotle’s virtues are largely missing. Courage, temperance, and liberality are only seen in the outcasts of this world. Self-denial and committed relationships are strongly discouraged.
Ross Douthat, in The New York Times, hits some similar notes below:
- In effect, both Huxley and [C. S.] Lewis looked at the utilitarian's paradise--a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized, and pain is eliminated--and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.
But even John Stuart Mill, the utilitarian, seemed to realize that there can be a depth to happiness that extends beyond pure pleasure. Mill wrote:
- It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
Near the conclusion of Brave New World, the Savage (John) has an illuminating verbal spat with the Controller Mustapha Mond:
- Savage: "But I like the inconveniences [of life.]"
- "We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."
- "But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
- "In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."
- "All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I am claiming the right to be unhappy."
The Savage meets a tragic end (in part because he gets cut off from supportive community and has not grasped the concept of forgiveness), but I am still more drawn to his life--of pain and love, desire and disappointment, art and decay, principle and struggle--than to a life plugged into the pleasure producing experience machine.
Even though Frey and Masur disagree on the breadth of the term “happiness,” both seem to agree that devoted relationships, selflessness, and self-transcendence often lead to durable, deep happiness. While many of my business ethics students did not define “happiness” in their reflections, I hope they increasingly realize the fulfillment that can come from cultivating virtue in the midst of difficulty.
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
The National Center for Public Policy Research has posted an open letter to Blackrock CEO Larry Fink that should be of interest to readers of this blog. I provide some excerpts below. The full letter can be found here.
Dear Mr. Fink,
This economic crisis makes it more important than ever that companies like BlackRock focus on helping our nation’s economy recover. BlackRock and others must not add additional hurdles to recovery by supporting unnecessary and harmful environmental, social, and governance (ESG) shareholder proposals.
…. we are especially concerned that your support for some ESG shareholder proposals and investor initiatives brings political interests into decisions that should be guided by shareholder interests…. when a company’s values become politicized, the interests of the diverse group of shareholders and customers are overshadowed by the narrow interests of activist groups pushing a political agenda.
…. ESG proposals will add an extra-regulatory cost .... This may harm everyday Americans who are invested in these companies through pension funds and retirement plans. While this won’t affect folks in your income bracket, this may be the difference between affording medication, being able to retire, or supporting a family member’s education for many Americans.
There is a financial risk to this tack as well. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “[p]erformance of BlackRock’s own iShares range of ESG funds shows that ESG is no guarantee of gold-plated returns. Its two oldest in the U.S., set up in 2005 and 2006 and now tracking the MSCI USA ESG Select index and the MSCI KLD 400 Social index, have both lagged behind iShares’ S&P 500 fund.”
And while publicly traded companies operate under a legal fiduciary duty to their investors, this is also a moral imperative. Free market capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any economic system in world history. That’s because, at its simplest level, capitalism operates under the basic rule that all exchanges are voluntary. Therefore, to achieve wealth and create growth in a capitalist system, one must appeal to the self-interest of others….
Friday, March 20, 2020
CNN recently ran a story entitled - the pandemic risks bringing out the worst in humanity.
Rather than focus on the negative, I decided to collect some of the positive business responses to COVID-19. This is probably just a small sampling of the positive responses. I may update this list from time to time; please feel free to add more in the comments or email me. [Updated with some suggestions from my business ethics students and to include some of the highlights from this excellent, more extensive list that a reader e-mailed.]
- Alibaba co-founder is donating masks and test kits to the US.
- AT&T provides free wireless to school districts and 60 days free service to new customers
- Bank of America allows borrowers to pause mortgage payments
- Comcast is offering free internet to low-income customers for two months and opening up WiFi hotspots and waiving disconnect/late fees.
- Dallas Mavericks are paying their hourly workers despite the NBA season being suspended.
- Delta waives change fees.
- Disney paying workers and donating food
- General Motors to support production of ventilators
- Goldman Sachs, Capital One, and American Express waived interest payments
- Google is offering free virtual tours of 1200+ museums & building a triage website (currently just for Bay area)NextDoor adds help maps and groups.
- Kellogg offering $4M in food relief
- Major League Baseball Pledges $30M to Ballpark Workers
- Publix offering special shopping hours for senior citizens. (Kroger, Giant, Target, Whole Foods and Dollar General are also doing this)
- Starbucks is offering free therapy sessions for its employees
- Taco Bell will continue to pay workers during the pandemic
- Tesla's CEO (Elon Musk) donating ventilators
- U-Haul is offering 30 days of free storage for college students
- Many distilleries and breweries make hand sanitizer (here, here, and here). (As is Louis Vuitton)
- Many online learning platforms are providing free materials.
- Many fitness studios are streaming free classes online (here, here, and here)
- Many musicians live streaming music for free.
- Many companies are offering more flexible working conditions and paid sick leave (beyond what is being required)
- And here is another list. 50 Ways Companies are Giving Back.
Also related to COVID-19, I just came across this article about David Lat (founder of "Above the Law"). David is an acquaintance of mine and many of our readers. According to the article, David has COVID-19 and has been dealt a particularly harsh case. David is an incredibly kind person, with a beautiful family, and his case has made me take the virus even more seriously.
Tuesday, January 28, 2020
I promised to check back in after negotiating The House on Elm Street (here). I’m checking in! We negotiated this exercise – which contains both legal and ethical issues – in my MBA Business Ethics/Legal course this evening. It proved to be a great learning experience. My previous post mentioned that Professor Siedel had made its use easy by creating thorough teaching notes. And as I suspected, while it might be ideal to have students read a negotiation text or have a full 75 minutes to debrief the exercise, neither proved essential to a valuable learning experience. It also provided a great segue into agency law, another of tonight’s topics.
During our discussion of ethical issues, I mentioned Professor Clayton M. Christensen's How Will You Measure Your Life? This past week, this question became particularly poignant. Christensen, one of Harvard Business School’s leading lights, passed away at the age of 67. Several years ago, BYU Law School Dean Professor Gordon Smith and I started “The Business Ethics Book Club for Law Professors.” The wonders of technology enabled several of us business law professors from all over the country to gather virtually about once a semester for a few years to read books on ethics, including Christensen’s book, which were generally written by business school professors. It’s a short, but powerful read. I highly recommend it to all BLPB readers. My recollection is that it was a popular book club selection too!
In this book, Christensen (and coauthors) seek to answer three simple questions: “How can I be sure that”: 1) “I will be successful and happy in my career?”, 2) “My relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness?,” and 3) “I live a life of integrity – and stay out of jail?” (p.6) Christensen wasn’t a business ethics professor. Rather, the book’s prologue explains that one of Christensen’s courses was Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise, in which “we study theories regarding the various dimensions of the job of general managers. These theories are statements of what cause things to happen – and why.” (5) On the last day of the course, instead of using these theories to examine organizations, the class used these theories to study themselves: “We are there to explore not what we hope will happen to us but rather what the theories predict will happen to us, as a result of different decisions and actions…Year after year I have been stunned at how the theories of the course illuminate issues in our personal lives as they do in the companies we’ve studied” (p.6) According to Amazon, this is “the only business book that Apple’s Steve Jobs said “deeply influenced” him.” And it’s not the only time Christensen’s work has been widely praised. His breakout work, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, was heralded by some as "one of the six most important business books ever written." Without doubt, both books are great, worthwhile reads.
Monday, December 30, 2019
This fall semester flew by. Hoping to make time to read and listen to more good content next semester. Always open to suggestions, especially podcasts because my commute is now about 30 minutes each way.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - William B. Irvine (Philosophy) (2009). Review of stoicism and an attempt at modern application. “Unlike Cynicism, Stoicism does not require its adherents to adopt an ascetic lifestyle. To the contrary , the Stoics thought that there was nothing wrong with enjoying the good things life has to offer, as long as we are careful in the manner we enjoy them. In particular, we must be ready to give up the good things without regret if our circumstances should change.” (46).
Utilitarianism - John Stuart Mill (Philosophy) (1863). Reread before my spring business ethics class. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig think otherwise, that is because they know only their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” (7). “Next to selfishness, the principal cause that makes life unsatisfactory is a lack of mental cultivation.” (10).
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson (Non-fiction, Law) (2014). Stories of injustice in our criminal legal system. Reread in advance of our SEALSB Conference in Montgomery, AL. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) in Montgomery. The EJI’s museum and memorial are well worth your time; like the book, they are quite moving.
The Dream - an investigation of multi-level marketing companies (MLM).
Road to the Olympic Trials - Peter Bromka ran just two seconds shy of the standard; he will take another shot at the Houston Marathon in January.
Elizabeth Anscombe on Living the Truth (Jennifer Frey - University of South Carolina, Philosophy). Focuses on Anscombe’s theory of intentionality of action.
Ipse Dixit Legal Scholarship Podcasts (hosted by Brian Frye - University of Kentucky, Law)
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Happy holidays! Billions of people around the world are celebrating Christmas or Hanukah right now. Perhaps you’re even reading this post on a brand new Apple Ipad, a Microsoft Surface, or a Dell Computer. Maybe you found this post via a Google search. If you use a product manufactured by any of those companies or drive a Tesla, then this post is for you. Last week, a nonprofit organization filed the first lawsuit against the world’s biggest tech companies alleging that they are complicit in child trafficking and deaths in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dodd-Frank §1502 and the upcoming EU Conflict Minerals Regulation, which goes into effect in 2021, both require companies to disclose the efforts they have made to track and trace "conflict minerals" -- tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold from the DRC and surrounding countries. 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 EU and US regulators believe that consumers might make different purchasing decisions if they knew whether companies source their minerals ethically. The EU legislation, notably, does not limit the geography to the DRC, but instead focuses on conflict zones around the world.
If you’ve read my posts before, then you know that I have written repeatedly about the DRC and conflict minerals. After visiting DRC for a research trip in 2011, I wrote a law review article and co-filed an amicus brief during the §1502 litigation arguing that the law would not help people on the ground. I have also blogged here about legislation to end the rule, here about the EU's version of the rule, and here about the differences between the EU and US rule. Because of the law and pressure from activists and socially-responsible investors, companies, including the defendants, have filed disclosures, joined voluntary task forces to clean up supply chains, and responded to shareholder proposals regarding conflict minerals for years. I will have more on those initiatives in my next post. Interestingly, cobalt, the subject of the new litigation, is not a “conflict mineral” under either the U.S. or E.U. regulation, although, based on the rationale behind enacting Dodd-Frank §1502, perhaps it should have been. Nonetheless, in all of my research, I never came across any legislative history or materials discussing why cobalt was excluded.
The litigation makes some startling claims, but having been to the DRC, I’m not surprised. I’ve seen children who should have been in school, but could not afford to attend, digging for minerals with shovels and panning for gold in rivers. Although I was not allowed in the mines during my visit because of a massacre in the village the night before, I could still see child laborers on the side of the road mining. If you think mining is dangerous here in the U.S., imagine what it’s like in a poor country with a corrupt government dependent on income from multinationals.
The seventy-nine page class action Complaint was filed filed in federal court in the District of Columbia on behalf of thirteen children claiming: (1) a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) negligent supervision; and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress. I’ve listed some excerpts from the Complaint below (hyperlinks added):
Defendants Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla are knowingly benefiting from and providing substantial support to this “artisanal” mining system in the DRC. Defendants know and have known for a significant period of time the reality that DRC’s cobalt mining sector is dependent upon children, with males performing the most hazardous work in the primitive cobalt mines, including tunnel digging. These boys are working under stone age conditions for paltry wages and at immense personal risk to provide cobalt that is essential to the so-called “high tech” sector, dominated by Defendants and other companies. For the avoidance of doubt, every smartphone, tablet, laptop, electric vehicle, or other device containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery requires cobalt in order to recharge. Put simply, the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the Defendants each year would not be possible without cobalt mined in the DRC….
Plaintiffs herein are representative of the child cobalt miners, some as young as six years of age, who work in exceedingly harsh, hazardous, and toxic conditions that are on the extreme end of “the worst forms of child labor” prohibited by ILO Convention No. 182. Some of the child miners are also trafficked. Plaintiffs and the other child miners producing cobalt for Defendants Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla typically earn 2-3 U.S. dollars per day and, remarkably, in many cases even less than that, as they perform backbreaking and hazardous work that will likely kill or maim them. Based on indisputable research, cobalt mined in the DRC is listed on the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau’s List of Goods Produced with Forced and Child Labor.
When I mentioned above that I wasn’t surprised about the allegations, I mean that I wasn’t surprised that the injuries and deaths occur based on what I saw during my visit to DRC. I am surprised that companies that must perform due diligence in their supply chains for conflict minerals don’t perform the same kind of due diligence in the cobalt mines. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised at all, given how many companies have stated that they cannot be sure of the origins of their minerals. In my next post, I will discuss what the companies say they are doing, what they are actually doing, and how the market has reacted to the litigation. What I do know for sure is that the Apple store at the mall nearest to me was so crowded that people could not get in. The mall also has a Tesla showroom and people were gearing up for test drives. Does that mean that consumers are not aware of the allegations? Or does that mean that they don’t care? I’ll discuss that in the next post as well.
Wishing you all a happy and healthy holiday season.
December 24, 2019 in Compliance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, October 28, 2019
After spending the entire day grading undergraduate business law exams, I drove to my son’s elementary school for our first parent-teacher conference. On my wife’s advice, I mostly just listened. My legal and academic training have given me “a very particular set of skills” that I can use to construct and deconstruct arguments in a way some people find combative, so my wife's advice was probably wise.
The parent-teacher conference for our kindergarten-aged son went well. Most important to me, it was clear that our son’s teacher already appeared to love him and seemed committed to helping him develop. But I worry about what our education system may do to my son. Only two months into formal school, my sweet son, who has been in speech therapy since age two, is already receiving grades. Granted, the grades are pretty soft at this point – 3 for mastery, 2 for on track to complete this year, 1 for behind schedule. I hope he will not get overly discouraged. I also know he will not receive nearly as much affirmation in school for his impressive, budding artistic skills as he would for a photographic memory.
This parent-teacher conference, coupled with a handful of especially weak student exams, prompted a lot of thoughts about grading over the past few days.
As a parent, and increasingly as a professor, I am becoming convinced that we (as a society) over-focus on grades and our grades largely miss what is truly important. As a parent, I feel a good deal of responsibility for the development of my children, and as a professor, I obviously think education is an important part of human development. But before my oldest son started kindergarten this August, I wrote down some of the traits I hope my children will develop before they leave our home. In alphabetic order, they include:
While it is tempting to fixate on quantifiable things, like grades, I am attempting to model, praise, and teach the character traits above. And sometimes “failure” will develop these character traits better than “success.” I am seeing this in my son. He has already struggled more academically than I did in my entire educational experience, but, perhaps because of this, he is already significantly ahead of me in compassion and kindness.
As educators, if we are wed to giving grades, why do we only grade such a narrow set of skills? (For a debate in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the usefulness of grades, see here: useful and not useful.) For example, why do we often regulate athletic, artistic, and communication-based courses to pass/fail or effort-based grades, but mark academic work with such relative precision? (One theory is that teachers and administrators are generally naturally gifted in academic pursuits, but are generally not as gifted in athletic, artistic and communication-based areas.) In middle school, for physical education class, we were graded, in part, on our 1-mile time. If I remember correctly, under 6:00 was a 100% and you failed if you ran over 12:00. While it was only maybe 10% of our overall PE grade, I can’t imagine that many schools do that these days. And I understand the arguments against doing so – namely, some students have a significant genetic advantage over other students in endurance running. That said, the same can be said for test-taking. For most students, both endurance running and test-taking can be improved, but some students face much higher hurdles than others.
All of this thinking about grading has not led me to any definite conclusions yet, but I welcome thoughts in the comments. And, in coming semesters, I may try to diversify my grading even more, to capture more skills and to challenge a wider range of students. (The students who are most harmed by our current system may actually be the straight-A students who find tests easy, but who never or rarely face assessment in their naturally weaker areas). I already include a group project and participation as parts of the grade in most of my classes, but I could probably expand this to a higher percentage of the overall grade. That said, I also think that grades should reflect the level of proficiency obtained, so I think substantive knowledge will and should remain important.
Monday, October 14, 2019
Congrats to MIT professors Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer on their recent Nobel Prize in Economics.
A few years ago, I completed Professors Banerjee and Duflo's free online EdX course on "The Challenges of Global Poverty."
Evidently, they are doing a rerun of that course, starting February 4, 2020. You can sign up here.