Historically, the primary concern of shareholders and company executives has been to deliver returns on investments and ensure that the company meets or exceeds their quarterly earnings expectations. Inevitably this led to a more short-term view with any projects that didn’t contribute to the present quarter / yearly results being at risk of cuts.

However, as some of the leading shareholders continue to embrace their roles in ensuring that companies are held accountable for their impact on both the environment and society, a growing trend has emerged of remuneration committees coming under pressure to link equity and compensation awards to sustainable environmental and socially responsible business practices (E.g. Alphabet 2019 Proxy Statement – Proposal 13).

A number of studies [Project ROI] have been carried out that link social and environmental impact to attracting and retaining customers, increasing revenue and building a vibrant corporate culture, whilst also having significant brand impact in a landscape where simply achieving results may become secondary to the “how” they were achieved.

Linking social impact to executive compensation

One of the most significant hurdles of linking the social impact of a company to the equity based compensation of senior executives and directors has been the attempt to identify  quantifiable measures for what can be a very subjective definition of success.

As the topic has come under more scrutiny there has been a visible appetite for businesses to provide more reporting and demonstrate measures that have been taken to ensure they partake in socially responsible practices. This can include:

  • Auditing suppliers to ensure that they and their subcontractors adhere to the values that they wish to demonstrate,
  • Allocating employee time and resources to positively impact society, or
  • Specific metrics regarding health and safety at work.

An example of this trend is Alcoa. In their 2019 proxy statement Alcoa links 30% of incentive goals to non-financial measures such as safety at work and diversity in the workforce, up from 20% in 2018.

In addition to the individual metrics defined by organizations, there has also been a growing trend of executive compensation being linked to the performance of a company on a corporate responsibility index (e.g. Dow Jones Sustainability Index). By linking elements of incentive multipliers to performance against a wider set of peers and the index, companies are able to not only create quantifiable targets to base awards on but are also focused on ensuring that they take a long term view in order to outperform competitors.

Gathering momentum

By defining these criteria and linking to long term incentives, businesses are more able to demonstrate their roles in a socially responsible business world. The positive financial impact of a socially responsible business is only a relatively recent trend. However, with a growing number of large investors taking an active role in the stewardship and engagement of their assets (Blackrock letter to CEOs), it is a trend that is likely to continue to gain traction.

Conversely, organizations that are perceived to be failing to meet their obligations to society will increasingly impact the brand, reputation, and ultimately the bottom line. Hence companies that traditionally have been focused on their financial results are exploring how they can adapt to the new criteria.

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