https://www.theepochtimes.com/experienced-business-leaders-steering-clear-of-boardrooms-due-to-heavy-esg-burden-ceo_4703306.html

Heavy regulatory burdens that come packaged with trendy progressive agendas, like gender quotas, are keeping some of the most experienced executives from joining boardrooms, warns one CEO.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the CEO in charge of an Australian publicly listed company revealed that many individuals choose to take on non-executive roles as a form of public service after many years at the pinnacle of their careers.

“You’re paying someone around $130,000 a year. Now, that might sound like a lot of money, but let me assure you, none of the people you want on your board needs that money. They have effectively retired,” he told The Epoch Times.

“They see this as an opportunity to give back and to share the knowledge they’ve gained over their lifetime with younger management teams who are seeking to forge the best path forward.”

The CEO revealed that governments—in line with pressure from media outlets, advocacy groups, and shareholder activists—have over the years ratcheted up environmental, social, and governance (ESG) requirements for boardrooms. One example is the yearly reports that companies are supposed to submit to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency set up under former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012.

Pedestrians reflected on a marble wall in the central business district of Sydney, Australia, on April 4, 2017. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

“The problem you’ve got now is where you place more and more liability, constraints, and hurdles around non-executive director roles. And someone might be personally liable for things that are essentially outside of their control,” he said.

“There’s a lot of these people who have finished their careers and think, ‘I’m not going to touch a non-executive board role with a barge pole.”

While supportive of initiatives like environmentalism, he said recent moves have edged into the realm of tokenism, pointing to shareholder pressure for climate change targets, gender quotas, and practicing the “Acknowledgement of Country”—paying respect to Australia’s Aboriginal heritage—before every meeting.

“Most of the people I know who take on those non-executive roles or who run big public companies—and I speak to lots at conferences, events, and so forth—they’re all on the same page as me, and they could not care less about [gender or race] orientation. They just want the best person who’s going to get the best outcome for the company,” he said.

Customers and Staff First, Not ESG: Investor

Steve Baxter, tech start-up investor and star of the Australian TV series Shark Tank, agrees, saying the use of “artificial, non-merit-based” criteria to assign jobs will likely disrupt the productivity of a workplace. He also said ESG was “creeping ever further and deeper into corporation and boardrooms.”

“Directors are the ‘boogie men’ that get held to account for malfeasance in a company by many areas of the press, but directors do not run companies and primarily operate in more of an oversight role,” he told The Epoch Times in an email. “I can understand why the level of non-productive rubbish that is enforced onto boards would see directors want to do something else.”

Baxter said businesses should be allowed to focus on “customers, products, and staff.”

“Any other distraction robs from efficiency and focuses on things activists prefer, instead of what delivers value,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Australian investor and entrepreneur Steve Baxter in Sydney, Australia, on Aug. 10, 2019. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

“Once a business is operating efficiently, it can distribute excess cash flow in the form of dividends or similar. The recipients can then choose to invest or donate to whatever ‘feel good’ cause they please. Governments co-opting those profits to see them spent on activist pet projects need to be called out.”

Baxter also said more disclosure around shareholder activism was needed.

U.S. investment giants like BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard—who all have substantial shareholdings in numerous public companies—have been accused of actively using this control to put pressure on board executives to pursue social justice causes.

Earlier this year, State Street Global Advisors warned it would take voting action against directors in U.S. S&P500 and UK FTSE 100 companies if they did not have one person of colour on their board or failed to disclose the racial and ethnic diversity of their directors.

In Australia, proxy advisors like the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, who purport to represent the interests of 37 pension funds, have played a similar role in climate change.

If major funds decide to pull their investment, it can have a marked impact on the share price of a corporation and influence other investors.

The overall situation has compelled 19 U.S. attorney-generals to issue a “please explain” to the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock on its activities, arguing that its pursuit of net-zero was potentially putting it in breach of fiduciary duty to shareholders.

In response, Baxter said more disclosure could expose whether green investments were actually profitable—especially compared to the performance of traditional fossil fuel stocks.

“If these funds are pressuring companies to do things that will see them underperform, then you have to wonder what incentive operates inside that fund to push that angle?” he said.

“Are they being rewarded for poorly performing investments? Are they charging more for ESG investments to cover or compensate (the fund manager) for the seemingly illogical pressure they are bringing to bear on their portfolios?”

Big Push for Women in the Workplace

Gender equality was a big winner at the recently concluded Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra, with several speakers honing in on issues like the gender pay gap, “toxic” workplace cultures, and the need to include more women in boardrooms.

Emma Fulu, executive director of Equality Institute, told the conference there was a need to level the playing field.

“We need to start changing who is in the room and in the boardroom. We need to create space for those who have historically been silenced and excluded,” she told the Summit.

Epoch Times Photo
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese addresses the Jobs and Skills Summit at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia on Sept. 1, 2022. (Martin Ollman/Getty Images)

While Danielle Wood, CEO of the Grattan Institute, said there was huge potential in the female workforce.

“I can’t help but reflect that if untapped women’s workforce participation was a massive iron ore deposit, we would have governments falling over themselves to give subsidies to get it out of the ground,” she said.

The Summit’s final 36 outcomes included a pledge from the Labor government to establish a Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce to provide advice to “inform the National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality.”

The government will also set gender quotas in the Australian Public Service and require departments to report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. There was a further commitment to introduce “gender-responsive budgeting and apply gender impact analysis” on decisions in the Women’s Budget Statement and to cement “gender pay equity” into the Fair Work Act.

Details of the policies will need to be worked out; however, the majority of the regulatory burden will impact large corporations first before trickling down to small to mid-sized businesses.

Daniel Y. Teng

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Daniel Y. Teng is based in Sydney. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at daniel.teng@epochtimes.com.au.

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