British Prime Minister, Theresa May caught the attention of many recently when she raised the possibility of requiring companies to reserve positions on company boards for employee directors. This proposal, which was suggested amongst other measures as a means of curbing perceived corporate excess in the UK, has received a mixed response, including support from the Institute of Directors and wonderment from others.
Increased diversity has been associated with improved decision quality, so including employee directors at the board table should be to the organisation's advantage, shouldn't it? On the surface, yes. However, experience tells us that one of the very real challenges of reserving places on boards, be it via a gender-based quota mechanism (e.g., Norway) or to provide a voice for an interest group (e.g., parent representatives on school boards), is that people bring baggage. Representation is a problem: candidates appointed because they meet the representation criteria often struggle to act in the best interests of the organisation when they take their position at the table.
The conflict (of interest) that employee directors face is even tougher to manage because it is directly personal. On one hand, employee directors are paid to perform work and implement strategies, while on the other they are expected to make decisions in the best interest of the company. Decisions made in the boardroom may not be to the employees advantage (e.g., to close a loss-making division, resulting in job losses). To expect an employee director to subordinate their personal and collegial interests in favour of what might be best for the company is likely to be a tall order; it may not even be realistic.
Yet the German experience (one of the most successful economies since World War II) suggests that the inclusion of employee directors can be made to work. But the German system of corporate governance is framed on the notion of two-tier boards, and employee directors sit on upper (supervisory) board not the executive board where the important strategic decisions are made. Also, supervisory boards normally only meet a few times each year, meaning the focus is more directly one of oversight, in a manner not dissimilar to an annual general meeting of shareholders in the unitary system.
If the corporate excess that May has called out is to be corralled (as it should be), the underlying basis of corporate governance (the means by which companies are directed and controlled) should be reviewed. A holistic review is needed to ensure the addition of specific measures (e.g., representative positions) does not inadvertently introduce other problems like suboptimal decision-making. Any review needs to extend beyond board structure and composition to the behaviour of directors and the activities of boards. Directors themselves also need to take responsibility for their actions; invest time understanding the business of the business; and, take their commitment to act in the best interests of the company seriously. I've written and spoken about this many times in the past. If directors embrace these suggestions, enforced structural provisions (e.g., representative groups) may no longer be required. But this relies on directors behaving well and doing 'the right thing', a reliance that has a chequered history.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.