Executive pay and perks have been creeping up the agenda with politicians and the public increasingly questioning the rewards given to top CEOs when companies fail.
But should this be done well before any potential failure and in particular when highly paid executives are seeking support for the restructuring and reorganisation initiatives that is necessary when their company is in financial difficulties?
Leadership involves setting an example and when the chips are down this means making demonstrable self-sacrifices.
This week, the Financial Times reported that Standard Chartered bank CEO Bill Winters may have his total pay cut and Namal Nawana will be leaving his CEO role at Smith & Nephew after less than a year after investors turned down his request to increase his $6m package to nearer $18m-$20m.
But it is not only executive pay that has come under fire, this is also true of pensions and other executive benefits.
In September the influential investor group IA (The Investment Association), told companies they must publish credible action plans that align executive pension pay with their workforce by 2022, or risk further shareholder revolts.
A Guardian report revealed that the IA, which represents City firms with £7.7tn in assets under management, has warned that it will “slap companies’ annual reports with a “red top” or highest possible warning label if they fail to share concrete action plans to align executive pension pay with the majority of staff and continue to offer top bosses retirement benefits worth over 25% of salary”.
Clearly shareholders are becoming less willing to support the “greed is good” philosophy that grew out of the Chicago School economist Milton Friedman’s Neoliberal economic model whereby businesses exist solely to make money for their shareholders and executives should be rewarded accordingly.
How much of this is due to external pressures, such as the growing awareness that perpetual growth is incompatible with a sustainable environment, and how much to a seemingly endless series of high profile business collapses, from Carillion to Thomas Cook with massive debts but still high executive pay and perks?
Are CEOs worth their executive pay and perks?
The CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) monitors the gap between average CEO pay and that of workers.
Its most recent report found that average salaries for chief executives fell by 13% between 2017 and 2018, but they still earned 117 times more than the average UK full-time worker, despite the introduction of new standards for corporate governance and the introduction of the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority by the Government earlier in the year
The argument has always been that in order to attract the best a business has to pay for talent, but beyond their annual reports, there is little or no guidance, or seemingly effort, made to monitor effectiveness or track improvements in profitability following the appointment of new CEOs.
In the most recent example, the death of travel company Thomas Cook, only now are questions being asked about the high remuneration of its CEO and executives when contrasted with its massive accumulated debt, and about the wisdom of turning down offers for lucrative parts of the business that might have made a difference.
At a recent event, moreover, Charles Cotton, CIPD senior adviser for performance and reward, said employers risked sending the message that executives’ contributions were “valued more highly” if their pay was rising when employee salaries had remained largely stagnant since 2008.
Clearly, there is a need for much more awareness among executive about the messages their pay and perks convey to stakeholders. The level of scrutiny they are being subjected to will only increase.