Corporate Governance: The responsibilities of the board

The corporate governance framework should ensure the strategic guidance of the company, the effective monitoring of management by the board, and the board’s accountability to the company and the shareholders. Board structures and procedures vary both within and among countries. Some countries have two-tier boards that separate the supervisory function and the management function into different bodies. Such systems typically have a “supervisory board” composed of non-executive board members and a “management board” composed entirely of executives. Other countries have “unitary” boards, which bring together executive and non-executive board members. In some countries there is also an additional statutory body for audit purposes.

The Principles are intended to apply to whatever board structure is charged with the functions of governing the enterprise and monitoring management. Together with guiding corporate strategy, the board is chiefly responsible for monitoring managerial performance and achieving an adequate return for shareholders, while preventing conflicts of interest and balancing competing demands on the corporation. In order for boards to effectively fulfil their responsibilities they must be able to exercise objective and independent judgement. Another important board responsibility is to oversee the risk management system and systems designed to ensure that the corporation obeys applicable laws, including tax, competition, labour, environmental, equal opportunity, health and safety laws. In some countries, companies have found it useful to explicitly articulate the responsibilities that the board assumes and those for which management is accountable. The board is not only accountable to the company and its shareholders but also has a duty to act in their best interests. In addition, boards are expected to take due regard of, and deal fairly with, other stakeholder interests including those of employees, creditors, customers, suppliers and local communities. Observance of environmental and social standards is relevant in this context.

A. Board members should act on a fully informed basis, in good faith, with due diligence and care, and in the best interest of the company and the shareholders.

In some countries, the board is legally required to act in the interest of the company, taking into account the interests of shareholders, employees, and the public good. Acting in the best interest of the company should not permit management to become entrenched. This principle states the two key elements of the fiduciary duty of board members: the duty of care and the duty of loyalty. The duty of care requires board members to act on a fully informed basis, in good faith, with due diligence and care. In some jurisdictions there is a standard of reference which is the behaviour that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in similar circumstances. In nearly all jurisdictions, the duty of care does not extend to errors of business judgement so long as board members are not grossly negligent and a decision is made with due diligence, etc. The principle calls for board members to act on a fully informed basis. Good practice takes this to mean that they should be satisfied that key corporate information and compliance systems are fundamentally sound and underpin the key monitoring role of the board advocated by the Principles.

In many jurisdictions this meaning is already considered an element of the duty of care, while in others it is required by securities regulation, accounting standards, etc. The duty of loyalty is of central importance, since it underpins effective implementation of other principles in this document relating to, for example, the equitable treatment of shareholders, monitoring of related party transactions and the establishment of remuneration policy for key executives and board members. It is also a key principle for board members who are working within the structure of a group of companies: even though a company might be controlled by another enterprise, the duty of loyalty for a board member relates to the company and all its shareholders and not to the controlling company of the group. B. Where board decisions may affect different shareholder groups differently, the board should treat all shareholders fairly.

In carrying out its duties, the board should not be viewed, or act, as an assembly of individual representatives for various constituencies. While specific board members may indeed be nominated or elected by certain shareholders (and sometimes contested by others) it is an important feature of the board’s work that board members when they assume their responsibilities carry out their duties in an even-handed manner with respect to all shareholders. This principle is particularly important to establish in the presence of controlling shareholders that de facto may be able to select all board members.

C. The board should apply high ethical standards.

It should take into account the interests of stakeholders. The board has a key role in setting the ethical tone of a company, not only by its own actions, but also in appointing and overseeing key executives and consequently the management in general. High ethical standards are in the long term interests of the company as a means to make it credible and trustworthy, not only in day-to-day operations but also with respect to longer term commitments. To make the objectives of the board clear and operational, many companies have found it useful to develop company codes of conduct based on, inter alia, professional standards and sometimes broader codes of behaviour, and to communicate them throughout the organisation. The latter might include a voluntary commitment by the company (including its subsidiaries) to comply with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises which reflect all four principles contained in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Similarly, jurisdictions are increasingly demanding that boards oversee the finance and tax planning strategies management is allowed to conduct, thus discouraging practices, for example the pursuit of aggressive tax avoidance, that do not contribute to the long term interests of the company and its shareholders, and can cause legal and reputational risks. Company-wide codes serve as a standard for conduct by both the board and key executives, setting the framework for the exercise of judgement in dealing with varying and often conflicting constituencies. At a minimum, the ethical code should set clear limits on the pursuit of private interests, including dealings in the shares of the company. An overall framework for ethical conduct goes beyond compliance with the law, which should always be a fundamental requirement.

D. The board should fulfil certain key functions, including:

1. Reviewing and guiding corporate strategy, major plans of action, risk management policies and procedures, annual budgets and business plans; setting performance objectives; monitoring implementation and corporate performance; and overseeing major capital expenditures, acquisitions and divestitures. An area of increasing importance for boards and which is closely related to corporate strategy is oversight of the company’s risk management. Such risk management oversight will involve oversight of the accountabilities and responsibilities for managing risks, specifying the types and degree of risk that a company is willing to accept in pursuit of its goals, and how it will manage the risks it creates through its operations and relationships. It is thus a crucial guideline for management that must manage risks to meet the company’s desired risk profile.

2. Monitoring the effectiveness of the company’s governance practices and making changes as needed. Monitoring of governance by the board also includes continuous review of the internal structure of the company to ensure that there are clear lines of accountability for management throughout the organisation. In addition to requiring the monitoring and disclosure of corporate governance practices on a regular basis, many countries have moved to recommend, or indeed mandate, self-assessment by boards of their performance as well as performance reviews of individual board members and the Chair and the CEO.

3. Selecting, compensating, monitoring and, when necessary, replacing key executives and overseeing succession planning. In most two tier board systems the supervisory board is also responsible for appointing the management board which will normally comprise most of the key executives.

4. Aligning key executive and board remuneration with the longer term interests of the company and its shareholders. It is regarded as good practice for boards to develop and disclose a remuneration policy statement covering board members and key executives. Such policy statements specify the relationship between remuneration and performance, and include measurable standards that emphasise the longer run interests of the company over short term considerations. Policy statements generally tend to set conditions for payments to board members for extra-board activities, such as consulting. They also often specify terms to be observed by board members and key executives about holding and trading the stock of the company, and the procedures to be followed in granting and re-pricing of options. In some countries, policy also covers the payments to be made when hiring and/or terminating the contract of an executive.

In large companies, it is considered good practice that remuneration policy and contracts for board members and key executives be handled by a special committee of the board comprising either wholly or a majority of independent directors and excluding executives that serve on each other’s remuneration committees, which could lead to conflicts of interest. The introduction of malus and claw-back provisions is considered good practice. They grant the company the right to withhold and recover compensation from executives in cases of managerial fraud and other circumstances, for example when the company is required to restate its financial statements due to material noncompliance with financial reporting requirements.

5. Ensuring a formal and transparent board nomination and election process. These Principles promote an active role for shareholders in the nomination and election of board members. The board has an essential role to play in ensuring that this and other aspects of the nominations and election process are respected. First, while actual procedures for nomination may differ among countries, the board or a nomination committee has a special responsibility to make sure that established procedures are transparent and respected. Second, the board has a key role in defining the general or individual profile of board members that the company may need at any given time, considering the appropriate knowledge, competencies and expertise to complement the existing skills of the board. Third, the board or nomination committee has the responsibility to identify potential candidates to meet desired profiles and propose them to shareholders, and/or consider those candidates advanced by shareholders with the right to make nominations. There are increasing calls for open search processes extending to a broad range of people.

6. Monitoring and managing potential conflicts of interest of management, board members and shareholders, including misuse of corporate assets and abuse in related party transactions. It is an important function of the board to oversee the internal control systems covering financial reporting and the use of corporate assets and to guard against abusive related party transactions. These functions are often assigned to the internal auditor which should maintain direct access to the board. Where other corporate officers are responsible such as the general counsel, it is important that they maintain similar reporting responsibilities as the internal auditor. In fulfilling its control oversight responsibilities it is important for the board to encourage the reporting of unethical/unlawful behaviour without fear of retribution. The existence of a company code of ethics should aid this process which should be underpinned by legal protection for the individuals concerned. A contact point for employees who wish to report concerns about unethical or illegal behaviour that might also compromise the integrity of financial statements should be offered by the audit committee or by an ethics committee or equivalent body.

7. Ensuring the integrity of the corporation’s accounting and financial reporting systems, including the independent audit, and that appropriate systems of control are in place, in particular, systems for risk management, financial and operational control, and compliance with the law and relevant standards. The Board should demonstrate a leadership role to ensure that an effective means of risk oversight is in place. Ensuring the integrity of the essential reporting and monitoring systems will require the board to set and enforce clear lines of responsibility and accountability throughout the organisation. The board will also need to ensure that there is appropriate oversight by senior management. Normally, this includes the establishment of an internal audit system directly reporting to the board. It is considered good practice for the internal auditors to report to an independent audit committee of the board or an equivalent body which is also responsible for managing the relationship with the external auditor, thereby allowing a co-ordinated response by the board.

It should also be regarded as good practice for this committee, or equivalent body, to review and report to the board the most critical accounting policies which are the basis for financial reports. However, the board should retain final responsibility for oversight of the company’s risk management system and for ensuring the integrity of the reporting systems. Some jurisdictions have provided for the chair of the board to report on the internal control process. Companies with large or complex risks (financial and non-financial), not only in the financial sector, should consider introducing similar reporting systems, including direct reporting to the board, with regard to risk management. Companies are also well advised to establish and ensure the effectiveness of internal controls, ethics, and compliance programmes or measures to comply with applicable laws, regulations, and standards, including statutes criminalising the bribery of foreign public officials, as required under the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, and other forms of bribery and corruption.

Moreover, compliance must also relate to other laws and regulations such as those covering securities, competition and work and safety conditions. Other laws that may be applicable include those relating to taxation, human rights, the environment, fraud, and money laundering. Such compliance programmes will also underpin the company’s ethical code. To be effective, the incentive structure of the business needs to be aligned with its ethical and professional standards so that adherence to these values is rewarded and breaches of law are met with dissuasive consequences or penalties. Compliance programmes should also extend to subsidiaries and where possible to third parties, such as agents and other intermediaries, consultants, representatives, distributors, contractors and suppliers, consortia, and joint venture partners.

8. Overseeing the process of disclosure and communications. The functions and responsibilities of the board and management with respect to disclosure and communication need to be clearly established by the board. In some jurisdictions, the appointment of an investment relations officer who reports directly to the board is considered good practice for large listed companies.

E. The board should be able to exercise objective independent judgement on corporate affairs.

In order to exercise its duties of monitoring managerial performance, preventing conflicts of interest and balancing competing demands on the corporation, it is essential that the board is able to exercise objective judgement. In the first instance this will mean independence and objectivity with respect to management with important implications for the composition and structure of the board. Board independence in these circumstances usually requires that a sufficient number of board members will need to be independent of management. In countries with single tier board systems, the objectivity of the board and its independence from management may be strengthened by the separation of the role of chief executive and Chair. Separation of the two posts is generally regarded as good practice, as it can help to achieve an appropriate balance of power, increase accountability and improve the board’s capacity for decision making independent of management.

The designation of a lead director is also regarded as a good practice alternative in some jurisdictions if that role is defined with sufficient authority to lead the board in cases where management has clear conflicts. Such mechanisms can also help to ensure high quality governance of the enterprise and the effective functioning of the board. The Chairman or lead director may, in some countries, be supported by a company secretary. In the case of two tier board systems, consideration should be given to whether corporate governance concerns might arise if there is a tradition for the head of the lower board becoming the Chairman of the Supervisory Board on retirement. The manner in which board objectivity might be underpinned also depends on the ownership structure of the company. A dominant shareholder has considerable powers to appoint the board and the management. However, in this case, the board still has a fiduciary responsibility to the company and to all shareholders including minority shareholders.

The variety of board structures, ownership patterns and practices in different countries will thus require different approaches to the issue of board objectivity. In many instances objectivity requires that a sufficient number of board members not be employed by the company or its affiliates and not be closely related to the company or its management through significant economic, family or other ties. This does not prevent shareholders from being board members. In others, independence from controlling shareholders or another controlling body will need to be emphasised, in particular if the ex ante rights of minority shareholders are weak and opportunities to obtain redress are limited. This has led to both codes and the law in most jurisdictions to call for some board members to be independent of dominant shareholders, independence extending to not being their representative or having close business ties with them. In other cases, parties such as particular creditors can also exercise significant influence.

Where there is a party in a special position to influence the company, there should be stringent tests to ensure the objective judgement of the board. In defining independence for members of the board, some national principles of corporate governance have specified quite detailed presumptions for non-independence which are frequently reflected in listing requirements. While establishing necessary conditions, such “negative” criteria defining when an individual is not regarded as independent can usefully be complemented by “positive” examples of qualities that will increase the probability of effective independence. Independent board members can contribute significantly to the decisionmaking of the board.

They can bring an objective view to the evaluation of the performance of the board and management. In addition, they can play an important role in areas where the interests of management, the company and its shareholders may diverge such as executive remuneration, succession planning, changes of corporate control, take-over defences, large acquisitions and the audit function. In order for them to play this key role, it is desirable that boards declare who they consider to be independent and the criterion for this judgement. Some jurisdictions also require separate meetings of independent directors on a periodic basis.

1. Boards should consider assigning a sufficient number of non-executive board members capable of exercising independent judgement to tasks where there is a potential for conflict of interest. Examples of such key responsibilities are ensuring the integrity of financial and non-financial reporting, the review of related party transactions, nomination of board members and key executives, and board remuneration. While the responsibility for financial reporting, remuneration and nomination are frequently with the board as a whole, independent nonexecutive board members can provide additional assurance to market participants that their interests are safeguarded. The board should consider establishing specific committees to consider questions where there is a potential for conflict of interest. These committees should require a minimum number or be composed entirely of non-executive members. In some countries, shareholders have direct responsibility for nominating and electing non-executive directors to specialised functions.

2. Boards should consider setting up specialised committees to support the full board in performing its functions, particularly in respect to audit, and, depending upon the company’s size and risk profile, also in respect to risk management and remuneration. When committees of the board are established, their mandate, composition and working procedures should be well defined and disclosed by the board. Where justified in terms of the size of the company and its board, the use of committees may improve the work of the board. In order to evaluate the merits of board committees it is important that the market receives a full and clear picture of their purpose, duties and composition. Such information is particularly important in the many jurisdictions where boards have established independent audit committees with powers to oversee the relationship with the external auditor and to act in many cases independently. 

Audit committees should also be able to oversee the effectiveness and integrity of the internal control system. Other such committees include those dealing with nomination, compensation, and risk. The establishment of additional committees can sometimes help avoid audit committee overload and to allow more board time to be dedicated to those issues. Nevertheless, the accountability of the rest of the board and the board as a whole should be clear. Disclosure need not extend to committees set up to deal with, for example, confidential commercial transactions.

3. Board members should be able to commit themselves effectively to their responsibilities. Service on too many boards can interfere with the performance of board members. Some countries have limited the number of board positions that can be held. Specific limitations may be less important than ensuring that members of the board enjoy legitimacy and confidence in the eyes of shareholders. Disclosure about other board memberships to shareholders is therefore a key instrument to improve board nominations. Achieving legitimacy would also be facilitated by the publication of attendance records for individual board members (e.g. whether they have missed a significant number of meetings) and any other work undertaken on behalf of the board and the associated remuneration.

4. Boards should regularly carry out evaluations to appraise their performance and assess whether they possess the right mix of background and competences. In order to improve board practices and the performance of its members, an increasing number of jurisdictions now encourage companies to engage in board training and voluntary board evaluation that meet the needs of the individual company. Particularly in large companies, board evaluation can be supported by external facilitators to increase objectivity. Unless certain qualifications are required, such as for financial institutions, this might include that board members acquire appropriate skills upon appointment. Thereafter, board members may remain abreast of relevant new laws, regulations, and changing commercial and other risks through in-house training and external courses. In order to avoid groupthink and bring a diversity of thought to board discussion, boards should also consider if they collectively possess the right mix of background and competences. Countries may wish to consider measures such as voluntary targets, disclosure requirements, boardroom quotas, and private initiatives that enhance gender diversity on boards and in senior management.

F. In order to fulfil their responsibilities, board members should have access to accurate, relevant and timely information.

Board members require relevant information on a timely basis in order to support their decision-making. Non-executive board members do not typically have the same access to information as key managers within the company. The contributions of non-executive board members to the company can be enhanced by providing access to certain key managers within the company such as, for example, the company secretary, the internal auditor, and the head of risk management or chief risk officer, and recourse to independent external advice at the expense of the company. In order to fulfil their responsibilities, board members should ensure that they obtain accurate, relevant and timely information. Where companies rely on complex risk management models, board members should be made aware of the possible shortcomings of such models.

G. When employee representation on the board is mandated, mechanisms should be developed to facilitate access to information and training for employee representatives, so that this representation is exercised effectively and best contributes to the enhancement of board skills, information and independence.

When employee representation on boards is mandated by the law or collective agreements, or adopted voluntarily, it should be applied in a way that maximises its contribution to the board’s independence, competence and information. Employee representatives should have the same duties and responsibilities as all other board members, and should act in the best interest of the company. Procedures should be established to facilitate access to information, training and expertise, and the independence of employee board members from the CEO and management. These procedures should also include adequate, transparent appointment procedures, rights to report to employees on a regular basis – provided that board confidentiality requirements are duly respected – training, and clear procedures for managing conflicts of interest. A positive contribution to the board’s work will also require acceptance and constructive collaboration by other members of the board as well as by management.


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