This blog post is one installment in a series related to board oversight of corporate culture. The National Association of Corporate Directors announced in March that its 2017 Blue Ribbon Commission—a roster of distinguished corporate leaders and governance experts—would explore the role of the board in overseeing corporate culture. The commission will produce a report that will be released at NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit , Oct. 1–4.
Wells Fargo & Co., Volkswagen AG (VW), Mylan NV, and Valeant Pharmaceuticals International are just a few of the companies that have recently experienced high-profile corporate crises stemming from ethics and compliance breakdowns. As corporate directors look to learn from these scandals, the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, Association of Corporate Council, and Bloomberg Law® this April co-hosted the event Volkswagen Emissions Scandal—Lessons for Investors, Boards, Chief Legal Officers and Compliance & Governance Professionals.* The panel discussed the VW emissions scandal and lessons for boards of directors and general counsel (GCs) on instituting a corporate culture that promotes ethics and compliance.
Corporate Governance Causes of the VW Scandal
Charles M. Elson, director of the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, notes in an article that three main governance practices at VW created a perfect environment for noncompliant behavior stemming from a lack of independent shareholder representation on the board:
- A complicated web of interests with dual-class stock, pyramidal ownership, and family control. The Porsche and Piëch families own just over 50 percent of VW’s voting rights through their preferred class stock in Porsche Automobil Holding SE, which in turn owns shares of VW (known as pyramidal ownership). Ferdinand Piëch, the grandson of Porsche company founder Ferdinand Porsche, was chair of VW’s supervisory board at the time of the scandal and served as CEO from 1993 to 2002. Piëch’s primary goal is said to have been to create the largest automaker in the world, with less regard for creating profit and shareholder value. This directive from the company leader, in an environment where shareholders outside of the family had little influence over the board, created a corporate culture where employees chose noncompliant behavior over failure when designing the “defeat devices” used to cheat U.S. emissions tests.
- The government as a major shareholder. VW was a state-owned enterprise until 1960 when it became privatized and left Germany’s Lower Saxony region with a 20 percent stake in the company. Elson opines that the interest of government officials is to be re-elected, often achieved through high employment rates. Therefore, government representatives on the board of VW were driven to create jobs at VW, the largest employer in Lower Saxony, even if adding those jobs was detrimental to profits.
- Labor representation on the board (codetermination). German law requires all companies with more than 2,000 employees to fill half of the board with employee representatives. Elson argues that the board’s ability to provide effective compliance oversight was diluted by labor representatives on the board who were essentially monitoring themselves, and hence more focused on obtaining higher compensation and decent working hours for employees.
In light of these conditions at VW, panelists shared a number of leading practices for GCs and directors in creating a compliant corporate culture:
Lessons for GCs
- “You can’t legislate ethics, but you can promote them,” said one panelist. Be the devil’s advocate and stress the importance of risk management and cultural tones at different levels of the organization, i.e., the so-called tone at the top, mood at the middle, and buzz at the bottom.
- Ensure your board spends adequate time on compliance issues. Directors are often bogged down by compliance and want to spend more time on strategy, but prioritizing compliance at the board level will create a culture that allows strategy to be carried out successfully.
- Get the right information to the board at the right time. According to one panelist, “The GC—as well as risk managers and in-house lawyers—need to be tough enough to speak up and report to the board. At Lehman Brothers, the CEO was known as the ‘gorilla on Wall Street.’ He doubled down on real estate, which the risk officer beneath him knew was risky, but their concerns were never known to the board.”
- Remember that your duty is to the company—not the CEO—even if you’re reporting to him or her. “If [you as] the GC [are] aware of a violation, you need to do the right thing and not be swayed,” said one speaker.
Lessons for Directors
- Increase your exposure to more employees, including mid-level employees, to get a better sense of the corporation’s culture in practice below the C-suite.
- Create straight reporting lines from the compliance officer, chief risk officer, and internal auditor to committee chairs. This empowers these officers to speak openly with board members about their concerns without management present. (See NACD’s brief on Audit Committee Oversight of Compliance, which is open to the public for download.)
- Incentivize compliance through compensation metrics. See NACD’s briefs on Incentives and Risk-Taking and Board-Management Dialogue on Risk Appetite for guidance on designing incentive programs that promote high performance while limiting unhealthy risk-taking.
- Should your company have one in place, reevaluate multiclass stock structures in light of investor perspectives. Research from the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute shows that “controlled companies generally underperform on metrics that affect unaffiliated shareholders,” while the “Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles,” released by major institutional investors and others, says that “dual class voting is not best practice.”
* The distinguished panel of speakers included: Robert E. Bostrom, senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Abercrombie & Fitch Co.; Charles M. Elson, Edgar J. Woolard, Jr. chair in corporate governance, director of the John. L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, and professor of finance at the University of Delaware; Meredith Miller, chief corporate governance officer at UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust; Gloria Santona, retired executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary at McDonald’s Corp.; Professor Christian Strenger, academic director, Center for Corporate Governance at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management; Anton R. Valukas, chairman at Jenner & Block LLP; and The Honorable James T. Vaughn, Jr., justice of the Delaware Supreme Court. Italicized comments above are from panelists that participated in this event. However, this discussion was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, so quotes are not attributed to individuals or organizations.