ESG Principles at Work in Diversifying Governance

Before environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters became commercially and culturally significant, the lack of diversity and inclusion within governance structures was noted by stakeholders but not scrutinized.

The shifting tides now means that organizations lacking diversity in their corporate leadership could be potentially subjected to shareholder lawsuits, increased regulation and directives by state laws, investment bank requirements, and potential industry edicts.

Board and management diversity is undoubtedly a high-priority issue in the banking and financial services sectors. Numerous reports establish minority groups have historically been denied access to capital, which is mirrored by the lack of minority representation on the boards of financial institutions.

Some progress has been made. For example, for the first time in its 107-year history, white men held fewer than half of the board seats at the Federal Reserve’s 12 regional outposts. This was part of an intentional effort, as Fed leaders believe a more representative body of leaders will better understand economic conditions and make better policy decisions. However, further analysis reflects such diversity predominantly among the two-thirds of directors who are not bankers, while the experienced banking directors are mainly white males.

Board Diversity Lawsuits
The current pending shareholder suits have been primarily filed by the same group of firms and targeted many companies listed by a recent Newsweek article as not having a Black director. None of these suits involve financial institutions, but it is not hard to foresee such cases coming in the future. The lawsuits generally assert that the defendants breached their fiduciary duties and made false or misleading public statements regarding a company’s commitment to diversity. The Courts have summarily dismissed at least two suits, but a legal victory may not even be the goal in some cases.

Recently, Google’s parent settled its #MeToo derivative litigation and agreed to create a $310 million diversity, equity, and inclusion fund to support global diversity and inclusion initiatives within Google over the next ten years. The fund will also support various ESG programs outside Google focused on the digital and technology industries.

Regulatory, Industry, and Shareholder Efforts
Federal and state regulatory efforts preceded these recent lawsuits. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has issued compliance interpretations advising companies on the disclosure of diversity characteristics upon which they rely when nominating board members and is expected to push more disclosure in the future. Additionally, the U.S. House of Representatives considered a bill in November 2019 requiring issuers of securities to disclose the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of their boards of directors and executive officers and any plans to promote such diversity.

These efforts will likely filter into boardrooms and may spur additional board regulation at the state level. In 2019, California became the first state to require headquartered public companies to have a minimum number of female directors or face sanctions, increasing 2021. In June 2020, New York began requiring companies to report how many of their directors are women. As other states follow California’s lead regarding board composition, we can expect more claims to be filed across the country.

At the industry level, the Nasdaq stock exchange filed a proposal with the SEC to adopt regulations that would require most listed companies to elect at least one woman director and one director from an underrepresented minority or who identify as LGBTQ+. If adopted, the tiered requirements would force non-compliant companies to disclose such failures in the company’s annual meeting proxy statement or on its website.

In the private sector, institutional investors, such as BlackRock and Vanguard Group, have encouraged companies to pursue ESG goals and disclose their boards’ racial diversity, using proxy votes to advance such efforts. Separately, Institutional Shareholder Services and some non-profit organizations have either encouraged companies to disclose their diversity efforts or signed challenges and pledges to increase the diversity on their boards. Goldman Sachs Group has made clear it will only assist companies to go public if they have at least one diverse board member.

Concrete Plans Can Decrease Director Risk
Successful institutions know their diversity commitment cannot be rhetorical and is measured by the number of their diverse board and management leaders. As pending lawsuits and legislation leverage diversity statements to form the basis of liability or regulatory culpability, financial institutions should ensure that their actions fully support their diversity proclamations. Among other things, boards should:

  • Take the lead from public and private efforts and review and, if necessary, reform board composition to open or create seats for diverse directors.
  • When recruiting new board members, identify and prioritize salient diversity characteristics; if necessary, utilize a diversity-focused search consultant to ensure a diverse pool of candidates.
  • Develop a quantifiable plan for diversity issues by reviewing and augmenting governance guidelines, board committee efforts, and executive compensation criteria.
  • Create and promote diversity and inclusion goals and incorporate training at the board and management levels.
  • Require quarterly board reporting on diversity and inclusion programs to reveal trends and progress towards stated goals.

As companies express their commitment to the board and C-level diversity and other ESG efforts, they should create and follow concrete plans with defined goals and meticulously measure their progress.