CEOs & Business Leaders Speak Out on Voter Rights – Corporate Citizenship, USA-style On Display

April 14 2021

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute 

Corporate America and “Corporate Citizenship” – Today, that can mean lending the CEO and company voice to address critical societal issues in the United States of America.  Some applaud the move, while others attack the company and its leader for their position on the issues in question.   

In this context, powerful messages were delivered today from the influential leaders of the US corporate community – clearly voicing concern about the American electoral process and the rights of all qualified voters in the midst of mounting challenges to the right-to-vote. 

What the CEOs, joined by other influentials in the American society, had to say to us today:

As Americans we know that in our democracy we should not expect to agree on everything.

However – regardless of our political affiliations, we believe the very foundation of our electoral process rests upon the ability of each of us to cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.

We should all feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and oppose any discriminatory legislation or measure that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.

Who is saying this? A list of bold name signatories in an advertisement that appears today in The New York Times and The Washington Post – these messages (these above and more) splashed across two full pages (a “double truck” in newspaper language) with a dramatic roster of prominent names from Corporate America. And prominent accounting and law firms with bold name corporate clients. And not-for-profits. And individuals. Celebrities.  People and organizations that every day in some way touch our lives. 

This advertisement certainly continues to set the foundation in place for pushback by powerful people and organizations as various state legislatures take up electoral voting measures. And pushes back against the “Big Lie” that the November 2020 elections at federal, state and local levels were widely fraudulent.

The names on the two pages jump out to capture our attention: Apple. American Express. Amazon. Dell Technologies. Microsoft. Deloitte and EY and PwC. Estee Lauder. Wells Fargo. BlackRock. American Airlines and JetBlue and United Airlines. Steelcase. Ford Motor and General Motors. Goldman Sachs. MasterCard. Vanguard. Merck. Starbucks. IBM. Johnson & Johnson. PayPal. T. Rowe Price. And many more.

CEOs including Michael R. Bloomberg (naturally!). Warren Buffett. Bob Diamond, Barclay’s. Jane Fraser, Citi. Brian Doubles, Synchrony. Brian Cornwell, Target. Roger Crandall, Mass Mutual.

Luminaries joined in as individual in support of the effort: David Geffen. George Clooney. Naomi Campbell. Larry David. Shonda Rhimes. Larry Fink. Demi Lovato. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Many more; think about the influence of their influencers in our American society in 2021.

And we see the names of these law firms: Akin Gump. Arnold Porter. Milbank. Morgan Lewis & Bockius. Fried Frank. Cleary Gottlieb. Holland and Knight. Ropes & Gray. (If you are not sure of who these firms and many more law firm signatories are, be assured that in the board room and C-suite and corporate legal offices these are very familiar names).

And the “social sector” institutions/organizations signing on include leaders of the Wharton School, Morehouse College, Spelman College, University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, NYU Stern, United Negro College Fund, Hebrew SeniorLife, and Council for Inclusive Capitalism.

The New York Times covered the story of the advertising message in an article in the Business Section – Companies Join Forces to Oppose Voting Curbs (bylined by Andrew Ross Sorkin and David Gelles). Subhead: A statement that defies the GOPs call to stay out of politics.

The effort was organized by prominent Black business leaders including Ken Chennault, until recently the highly-regarded CEO of American Express, and Ken Frazier, the also-widely-admired CEO of Merck.

Recall that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell corporations said that corporations should “stay out of politics”. The recent State of Georgia legislation addressing voting rights was a trigger for prominent corporate leaders (such as heads of Coca Cola, Delta Airlines, both headquartered in Atlanta) to criticize measures that could deter or inhibit minority voter populations from exercising their rights.  Leader McConnell reacted to this. 

The Times quoted Kenneth Chennault: “It should be clear that there is overwhelming support in Corporate America for the principle of voting rights…these are not political issues…these are the issues that we were taught in civics…”

Also made clear: The CEOs, social influential and thought leaders including celebrities involved in the ad message effort were non partisan and not attacking individual states’ legislative efforts.

Remember The Business Roundtable’s recent re-alignment of the groups mission statement to focus on “purpose”? According to the Times report, the subject of the ad effort was raised on an internal call and CEOs were encouraged to sign on to the statement; many CEOs did.

Where does this go from here? Corporate executives are speaking out separately on the legislative measures being discussed in individual states that appear to or outright are clear about restricting rights of minority populations. That happened in Georgia recently. Coca Cola and Delta Airlines were hit with criticism; those companies were not signatories on the ad today. Home Depot (also HQd in Atlanta) waffled; the company is not represented on the signatory line nor was there public criticism of the legislature’s effort.

Perspective: While corporate citizenship has been an area of focus and public reporting for many years at a number of large cap public companies, the glare of publicity centered on the question of “what are you doing to help advance society on critical issues as a corporate citizen” is more recent.

The spotlight is intensifying on voting rights (as we see today) and also on climate change, diversity & inclusion, human capital management (especially in the Covid crisis), investment in local communities, in supporting public education, in hiring training & promotion of women and minorities, doing business with nations with despot leaders (think of Burma/Myanmar), equality of opportunity for all populations…and many other issues.

And so today’s advertising splash with CEOs especially putting their stake and their company’s stake in the ground on these types of issues is something we can expect to see continue and even expand in the coming weeks.

The division lines in the USA are certainly clear, especially in politics and public sector governance, and we are seeing that corporate leaders are responding to their stakeholders’ expectations…of being “a good corporate citizen”.

And it’s interesting to see the perspectives shared that even the meaning and understanding of the responsibilities of the “corporate citizen”) is defined along some of the lines that divide the nation.

Interesting footnote:  Clearly illustrating the political and philosophical divide, the members of the Republican Party who are organized as the opposition to the GOP today — The Lincoln Project — called on followers to sign on to an email that singles out JetBlue (one of the ad signatories) for contributing to political campaigns of what the Lincoln Project calls “seditionists”.  These are elected officials who “support voter suppression”. Says the project: If enough of us make it clear that we won’t stand inequality, voter supression and sedition, we will make a difference.

The battle lines are clearly drawn in voting rights issues. 

The advertisement today:

April 14 2021 – The New York Times and The Washington Post messages:

 

 

 

 

About “Stakeholder Capitalism”: The Public Debate

Here is the Transition — From the Long-Dominant Worldview of “Stockholder Capitalism” in a Changed World to…Stakeholder Capitalism!

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

October 2020

As readers of of G&A Institute’s weekly Sustainability Highlights newsletter know, the shift from “stockholder” to “stakeholder” capitalism has been underway in earnest for a good while now — and the public dialogue about this “21st Century Sign of Progress” has been quite lively.

What helped to really frame the issue in 2019 were two developments:

  • First, CEO Larry Fink, who heads the world’s largest asset management firm (BlackRock) sent a letter in January 2019 to the CEOs of companies in portfolio to focus on societal purpose (of course, in addition to or alongside of corporate mission, and the reasons for being in business).
  • Then in August, the CEOs of almost 200 of the largest companies in the U.S.A. responded; these were members of influential Business Roundtable (BRT), issuing an update to the organization’s mission statement to embrace the concepts of “purpose” and further cement the foundations of stakeholder capitalism.

These moves helped to accelerate a robust conversation already well underway, then further advanced by the subset discussion of Corporate America’s “walking-the-talk” of purpose et al during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Now we are seeing powerful interests weighing in to further accelerate the move away from stockholder primacy (Professor Milton Friedman’s dominant view for decades) to now a more inclusive stakeholder capitalism.  We bring you a selection of perspectives on the transition.

The annual gathering of elites in Davos, Switzerland this year — labeled the “Sustainable Development Impact Summit” — featured a gaggle of 120 of the world’s largest companies collaborating to develop a core set of common metrics / disclosures on “non-financials” for both investors and stakeholders. (Of course, investors and other providers of capital ARE stakeholders — sometimes still the inhabiting the primacy space on the stakeholder wheel!)

What are the challenges business organizations face in “making business more sustainable”?

That is being further explored months later by the World Economic Forum (WEF-the Davos organizers) — including the demonstration (or not) of excellence in corporate citizenship during the Covid-19 era. The folks at Davos released a “Davos Manifesto” at the January 2020 meetings (well before the worst impacts of the virus pandemic became highly visible around the world).

Now in early autumn 2020 as the effects of the virus, the resulting economic downturn, the rise of civil protests, and other challenges become very clear to C-suite, there is a “Great Reset” underway (says the WEC).

The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window opportunity to “reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.”

New ESG reporting metrics released in September by the World Economic Forum are designed to help companies report non-financial disclosures as part of the important shift to Stakeholder Capitalism.

There are four pillars to this approach:  People (Human Assets); Planet (the impact on natural environment); Prosperity (employment, wealth generation, community); and Principles of Governance (strategy, measuring risk, accounting and of course, purpose).

The WEF will work with the five global ESG framework and standard-setting organizations as we reported to you recently — CDSB, IIRC, CDP, GRI, SASB plus the IFAC looking at a new standards board (under IFRS).

Keep in mind The Climate Disclosure Standards Board was birthed at Davos back in 2007 to create a new generally-accepted framework for climate risk reporting by companies. The latest CDSB report has 21 core and 34 expanded metrics for sustainability reporting. With the other four collaborating organizations, these “are natural building blocks of a single, coherent, global ESG reporting system.”

The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC, another of the collaborators) weighed in to welcome the WEF initiative (that is in collaboration with Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC) to move toward common ESG metrics. And all of this is moving toward “COP 26” (the global climate talks) which has the stated goal of putting in place reporting frameworks so that every finance decision considers climate change.

“This starts”, says Mark Carney, Governor, Bank of England, and Chair of the Financial Stability Board, “with reporting…this should be integrated reporting”.

Remember, the FSB is the sponsor of the TCFD for climate-related financial disclosure.  FSB is a collaboration of the central banks and treasury ministries of the G-20 nations.

“COP 26 was scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, and was postponed due to the pandemic. We are now looking at plans for a combined 26 and 27 meeting in November 2021.”  Click here for more information.

There is a lot of public dialogue centered on these important moves by influential players shaping and advancing ESG reporting — and we bring you a selection of those shared perspectives in our Top Stories in the Sustainability Highlights newsletter this week.

Top Stories On Davos & More

And then there is this, in the public dialogue on Stakeholder Capitalism, adding a dash of “reality” from The New York Times:

SEC Provides Public Companies with COVID-19 Filing Deadline Relief and Guidance on the Financial Reporting Effects of the Virus

Summary of Audit Committee and Auditor Oversight Update (No. 58 February-March 2020)

by Daniel L. GoelzerFellow, G&A Institute

As companies struggle with the uncertainties and disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) has taken steps to assist public companies in complying with their reporting and disclosure obligations. The SEC has issued orders that extend for 45 days the deadline for most public company filings due between March 1st and July 1st, although companies that wish to take advantage of this relief must comply with certain conditions.

In addition, the Division of Corporation Finance had issued guidance providing staff views on disclosure and other securities law issues arising from COVID-19 and related business and market disruptions.

SEC Exempts More Small Companies from ICFR Audits

On March 12, the SEC adopted amendments to the definitions of the terms “accelerated filer” and “large accelerated filer”.

The effect of these amendments is to exclude certain smaller public companies from accelerated filer status. As a result, these companies will no longer be required to obtain an auditor’s report on the effectiveness of their internal control over financial reporting and will have additional time to file annual and periodic reports with the SEC.

Companies that qualify as smaller reporting companies under the Commission’s rules and have less than $100 million in revenue will move from accelerated filer to nonaccelerated filer status.

Managements and audit committees of companies affected by these amendments should consider whether or not discontinuing the ICFR audit is cost-effective.

Internal Auditors Are Missing Key Risks

The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) has released its annual survey of Chief Audit Executives. The 2020 North American Pulse of Internal Audit “reveals serious gaps in internal audit’s coverage, with audit plans deficient in key risk areas.”

For example, the IAA found that almost one-third of respondents did not include cybersecurity/information technology in their audit plans. In addition, more than half did not include governance/culture or third-party relationships, and 90 percent did not include sustainability.

Audit committees should consider whether the internal audit staff’s plans for the coming year match the committee’s view of risk.

What’s on the Audit Committee’s Agenda in 2020?

Part II: COVID-19

During the past month, COVID-19 has radically altered public company priorities and challenges. This Update summarizes the views of three large accounting firms on the financial reporting issues that companies – and therefore audit committees — will face in the new environment.

Deloitte Perspectives

In Financial Reporting Considerations Related to COVID-19 and an Economic Downturn (March 25, 2020), Deloitte discusses key accounting and financial reporting considerations related to economic conditions that may result from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deloitte’s comprehensive 64-page analysis includes the following sections:

  • Select SEC and PCAOB Announcements Related to COVID-19,
  • SEC Reporting and Disclosure Considerations, Broad Financial Reporting and Accounting Considerations, Internal Control Considerations, and
  • Financial Reporting Under ASC 852 for Entities in Reorganization Under the Bankruptcy Code.

The Deloitte paper also includes an appendix with industry-specific insights for eleven industry sectors. The executive summary discusses six accounting and reporting issues that “will be the most pervasive and challenging as a result of the pandemic’s impact.”

PwC’s Perspectives

PwC’s Responding to COVID-19: Considerations for corporate boards (March 20, 2020) states that boards “need to be proactive and agile, and they need to respond with strong leadership.” Accordingly, boards “will want to immediately consider” four broad issues:

  • Business (e.g., employee well-being,impact on strategy, share repurchases and dividends,supply chain,and liquidity);
  • tax policy and Washington;
  • financial reporting (e.g., financial reporting operations, earnings guidance, judgments and estimates, revenue recognition, and internal control testing);
  • and governance.

In a second publication — 1 2020 Audit committee newsletter: Helping you prepare for your next meeting — PwC adds some points specifically for audit committees.

E&Y Perspectives

In Five Financial Reporting Issues to Consider as a Consequence of COVID-19 (March 23, 2020), EY acknowledges that “the impact on financial reporting may not be the first thing that comes to mind as a consequence of the outbreak.”

Nonetheless, “there is an important and challenging role here for preparers of financial statements, audit committees and auditors.”

EY states that five issues will be priorities: Going concern and liquidity, impairment assessment, contract modifications, fair value measurement, and government assistance and income tax.

# # #

Daniel Goelzer is a retired partner in the law firm of Baker McKenzie. He is a member of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and advises a Big Four accounting firm on audit quality issues. From 2002 to 2012, he was a member of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board and served as Acting PCAOB Chair from August 2009 through January 2011. From 1983 to 1990, he was General Counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mr. Goelzer is a CPA and a lawyer.

He is a G&A Institute Fellow. 

You can follow the Audit Blog:  @BlogAuditor on Twitter or @the-audit-blog on medium.com

“Total Impact Valuation” – Monetizing the Enterprise’s “Cost-Benefit Analysis” of the Impact on Society? This is for CEOs – Advice From The Conference Board

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

Today’s question for corporate CEO’s:  Have you examined your company’s “Total Impact Valuation,” a new approach being advanced by The Conference Board, wherein the enterprises’ impact on society is monetized (cost/benefit evaluated and value attached)?

A small group of companies is doing these exercises. Think of their efforts to date as expanding the usual reporting of “Input/Output” to seriously consider (1) Outcomes, (2) Impacts, (3) Cost and Benefit to Society (and to the company).

Such firms as BASF (the German chemical giant), cement industry leaders Holcim/Ambjua Cement and LafargeHolcim, Samsung, Akzonobel (materials), ABN AMRO (Holland, financial services), Volvo (vehicles), and Argo (materials, Colombia) have been doing something along these lines and reporting results for a few years now on web sites, in sustainability reports, in financial statements, in a “total contribution report” or “value-added statement”, and by other means.

Some of these disclosures are third party assured (Argo’s is by Deloitte) and otherwise guided; the big accounting firms are involved (PwC and KPMG included).

This appears to us to have the potential to take corporate sustainability reporting to expanded (new) levels for at least the publicly-traded large caps – that is, if enough investors jump aboard the concept and ask for the information.  (Think about public discussion of the company’s “plus or minus” impact on society beyond the fences.)

Thomas Singer, Corporate Leadership research leader at The Conference Board, presents findings of his sampling of firms (those identified above) and shares his perspectives on the concept in Chief Executive Magazine – it’s our Top Story for you this issue.

BASF shares its “Value to Society” model (there’s a link to this in the article).  The company, explains Singer, monetizes more than 20 different types of environmental, social and economic impacts, including direct and indirect suppliers and even customer industries.

Author Thomas Singer turns out a good amount of strategic advice to company leaders and has been focusing more in his Director Notes on ESG and corporate sustainability.  There’s links to his papers and publications for you in the link.

A major drawback here in the U.S.A.: there is no standard benchmark for measuring progress or lack of, and to guide reporting; there is in turn no way to compare company “A” to “B” for investors, ratings analysts and others.

So what do you think – is this a “we’re a long way from Kansas, Toto” moment for corporate leaders in terms of expectations of shareholders and stakeholders for what the companies will share in their disclosures of the future?  (The “Kansas” reference being the bad old days practices of chemicals and other companies “externalizing” costs to society for environmental mismanagement and minimizing the actual costs of clean up in financial reports.)

The total value practice got underway in Europe – and we will be watching to see if U.S.-based public companies pick up on the concept. Especially those where their foreign peers have the modeling and techniques underway.  That is what happened with corporate sustainability and ESG reporting over time.

Top Stories

CEOs Need To Put This Sustainability Trend On Their Radar
(Tuesday – July 03, 2018) Source: Chief Executive – What if America’s CEOs could understand the full financial impact their company has on society? It could make them rethink their game plan for how they prevent workplace accidents, lessen air pollution, manage waste – the list…