Is it a good idea or even proper, for shareholders to try to leverage their slice of ownership to force companies to engage in socially (or politically) conscious activities, even if it can, at...

Is it a good idea or even proper, for shareholders to try to leverage their slice of ownership to force companies to engage in socially (or politically) conscious activities, even if it can, at least in the short term, have a negative impact upon the company's bottom line? Or should those decisions come from the director who is voted to run the company? Is there a difference when non-owners pressure for action, such as boycotts and when college students protesting for divestment? Give current or past example in answer.

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question engages the issue of shareholder activism which has been increasing discussed in the financial news in the past few decades. The first thing to note is that shareholder activism is an important counterweight to cronyism and complacency among boards, especially ones that rubber stamp huge and unjustified pay packages for executives. Most shareholder activism is actually geared toward improving profits. Towering figures such as Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens were sometimes admired for forcing companies to become less sclerotic and at other times criticized for their "short-term" thinking. Whether one approves or disapproves of their actions, they established the principle that shareholders, as owners of the company, have the right to have a say in the decisions of the companies they own. Although in theory the Board of Directors is accountable to the shareholders, that is not always the case. Board members may be nominated by executives or may be promoted as the result of cronyism. Interlocking directorates can undermine the independence of boards. Increasingly, pension funds are held to have a fiduciary responsibility to actively vote their shares.

A shareholder, as a part owner of a company, has the responsibility to be an active and prudent owner. Just as I vote at meetings of my Homeowners' Association on how common areas should be managed, so large shareholders should actively engage in how the companies they partly own set strategic priorities. While some of these priorities may be oriented toward profit, that is not the only issue that is important. For example, shareholders living in coastal areas affected by increases in hurricane activity and rising sea levels due to global climate change may rationally decide that the economic disruptions due to climate change are an important issue. Shareholders might legitimately believe that helping people who live in extreme poverty near corporate headquarters by offering internships to students from local high schools is more important than spending millions of dollars to buy luxury furniture for executive offices. 

One good example to investigate would be the movement spearheaded by Blackrock and other various pension funds to force Occidental Petroleum to research and report on the effects of climate change on its long-term business strategy. Since pension funds must think about investments over a 20–30 year horizon, this shows activism as combining social responsibility with an impetus to compel businesses to look beyond short-term profitability (something that may line pockets through executive bonuses to the detriment of the company as a whole) toward long-term benefits for all stakeholders. 

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