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Corporate Governance and Ethics

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

“Corporate governance” is the term used to refer to the policies and processes by which a corporation (or other large, complex institution) is controlled and directed. It refers especially to the way power and accountability flow between shareholders, boards of directors, CEOs, and senior managers.

For most corporations, the basic governance structure is this: shareholders vote for, and hence empower, a board of directors, who then have a fiduciary responsibility to look out for shareholders’ interests. The board hires a CEO, who is accountable to the board. The CEO (sometimes with input from the board) hires a management team, and so on. At each step, there is a flow of power down the chain (from shareholders through to front-line employees), and a flow of accountability back up that chain. And there are all sorts of rules — including various policies and principles of good governance — that establish how that power and accountability is to be implemented. There will be internal rules, for example (partly determined by relevant corporate law), about how board elections are to be carried out. There are also governance principles that apply to things like the inclusion of external, “independent” directors on the board.

In case it’s not obvious, I’ll say it explicitly: corporate governance is out-and-out a matter of ethics. It is about who is responsible to whom, and for what, and under what conditions.

Now, to an investor, governance might look first and foremost like a matter of economics: no one particularly wants to invest in a poorly-governed company. And governance is also legal matter (for example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 includes a number of requirements about corporate governance). Governance is properly a legal matter because (at least arguably) shareholders need protection from unscrupulous or merely lazy boards of directors and executives, and because the public interest is at stake when large companies are mis-governed. Enron used to be the prime example of poor governance practices having a devastating effect on shareholders and the broader public. These days we could probably look to a few major financial institutions for object lessons in the ill effects of bad governance.

But even where the law is silent, governance remains important: regardless of whether you think in terms of a narrow, shareholder-driven, profits-first perspective, or instead in terms of a broader ‘stakeholder’ approach, you simply have to agree that the way decisions get made, and the interests that corporate policies tell decision-makers to serve, are ethically important matters.

My mind is on governance a lot lately, not least because I’m currently a Visiting Scholar at the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness (at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management).

While I’m at Clarkson, I’m helping out with the CCBE blog. The blog is focused primarily on governance and board effectiveness, but in most cases the ethical implications of those issues are pretty clear. Today, for instance, the blog features a posting about changes in the way boards of directors are elected — and how at last some companies (including one Canadian company, Linamar Corp.) have been slow to catch on. Here’s the blog entry: Trend Watch: How are Directors Elected?


Corporate Governance books currently on my bookshelf:





    Chris MacDonald

    Chris MacDonald is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Saint Mary's University (Halifax, Canada). He is also Coordinator of SMU's M.A. Programme in Philosophy and he runs the The Business Ethics Blog.


    CATEGORIES: +english | +Research Institutes | AccountAbility | Business Ethics Blog by Prof. Chris MacDonald | Canada | Newsflash

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