I attended a briefing held by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) called Directing Tomorrow Today: The Essential Director’s Update. For me, this is a must-attend event, as there is a wealth of quality information provided on current issues relating to the essential process of quality company directorship.

There is an enormous amount of work that AICD undertakes on the members’ behalf to advocate for appropriate legal frameworks and legislation changes. One particular area of the debate which has taken an extraordinary turn for the worse is the expectations around personal liability for company directors.

Let us not forget why the formation of limited liability companies was created in the first place – to limit liability to shareholders in order to raise capital to grow. However, the overwhelming and I think the highly disturbing trend is that the liability is certainly transferred away from shareholders and directly and personally placed onto the shoulders of company directors. A recent survey conducted by the Australian Federal Treasury has clearly shown that it is affecting decisions to take on directorships. Here are a couple of key points quoted from that survey by Gabrielle Upton, Legal Counsel AICD,  in the February issue of Company Director magazine:

  • 71 per cent of respondents had declined the offer of a company directorship because of the risk of personal liability
  • 62 per cent of respondents believed their boards had lost a potential or suitable board member because of that person’s concern about the risk of personal liability
  • 87 per cent knew of other people who had declined an offer of a company directorship because of the risk of personal liability; and
  • 75 per cent knew of other people who had resigned from a company directorship because of the risk of personal liability

Why is this occurring?

The fallout from the Global Financial Crisis, some large scale corporate collapses created a real change in regime and compliance activities.

In addition, the continued greedy behaviour by a small number of directors in top companies has led to rewards for this small percentage completely out of alignment with corporate performance. In short, pay has gone up, performance has gone down. In addition, the pay packets for these individuals are way out of kilter with the expectations of most of the population. Those people who act in the interest of personal greed, instead of the interests of the shareholders, deserve every bit of the criticism they get.

Unintended Ramifications of this Activity

There is a high calibre of corporate governance in Australia. Part of this is due to the separation of the powers of the Chairman of the Board, and the CEO that applies in Australia. Another big part is the emphasis on non-executive directors being part of boards.

However, the risk / reward trade-off has become so significant that mighty steps need to be taken in order to ensure that the director pool continues to grow AND that directors don’t become obsessed with risk to the detriment of company performance. You could understand this too if your career and everything you own and has worked for was at stake too.

Yet, the issue of the greed of a few is desensitizing those involved to the potential plight of the genuine director – and they receive little sympathy.

There are more than 660 state and territory laws that impose personal liability on individual directors and officers.

660 laws that impose personal liability on the people that are directing a company. That is outrageous. The most damning thing is that some of these laws come from a context of providing proof of innocence rather than proof of guilt. Imagine that being applied in any other setting? I don’t know the details of the bill of human rights, however, the right of innocence until proven guilty is something we all take for granted.

The counterargument is that we must have suitable deterrents for those earning the big dollars that are a sufficient penalty. I have no issue with that. Let’s however be clear on the principle at play: the director that has acted honestly, in the best interests of the shareholders, that has sought advice when appropriate, has inspected and checked that risk is being managed effectively and making reasonable decisions based upon the facts presented SHOULD be protected by law. Those that act dishonestly deserve to be punished mightily.

The Unintended Affected

It is vital to understand that the liabilities and responsibilities of being a director remain the same (other than specific rules applying to listed companies, such as continuous disclosure) if someone is working in a small company, or contributing their time as a director for a not for profit board.

There is a huge amount to consider as a company director to discharge responsibilities properly and effectively. The reward should be commensurate with the risk. If the risk is inordinate, then rewards to match will be demanded – and many of the best and brightest minds will pursue other opportunities.

Put this in comparison with the standards expected and the respective pay packets of Australian Rules Football players, many of whom earn many multiples of the salary of the prime minister of our country.

As with the global financial crisis… never in the field of business governance should so many be angry at so few.

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