(The following post originally appeared on ONSecurities, a top Minnesota legal blog founded by Martin Rosenbaum to address securities, governance and compensation issues facing public companies.)
As discussed in my last post, the proxy advisory firm ISS recently issued its 2012 Updates to its U.S. Corporate Governance Policy (PDF). One important change relates to the board’s response to a high negative vote. For companies that experienced a lot of “thumbs down” votes from shareholders at the last annual meeting, ISS’s evaluation of the board’s responsiveness will affect ISS’s recommendation on the upcoming Say-on-Pay vote. Not only that, but this evaluation will also inform ISS’s voting recommendations for compensation committee members in the election of directors.
The new formulation is much more specific than in the previous Policy. ISS will evaluate responsiveness on a case-by-case basis if the previous Say-on-Pay proposal received less than 70% of the votes cast. Therefore, ISS has for the first time specified the “red zone” range where the negative votes are high enough to create significant concern. For these under-70% companies, ISS’s evaluation will take into account the company’s responsiveness to the negative votes, including:
- Disclosure of engagement efforts with major investors;
- Actions to address issues that contributed to the low level of support and other recent compensation actions;
- The recurring or isolated nature of the issues raised;
- The company’s ownership structure; and
- Whether support was less than 50%, which requires the highest degree of responsiveness.
In its “Rationale for Update,” ISS specifies the disclosures it will look for in the proxy statements of these companies that received under 70% the previous year:
. . . At companies that fail to receive a meaningful level of support on their say-on-pay proposals, shareholders will seek substantive and meaningful disclosure in determining whether the company has taken sufficient actions to address the compensation issues that contributed to the low level of support. Companies should discuss their outreach efforts to major institutional investors and provide the specific actions that they have taken to address the compensation issues that resulted in a significant opposition votes. These specific actions should ideally be new rather than a reiteration of existing practices. Companies should refrain from providing boilerplate disclosure, as it does not enable shareholders to gauge the level of effort taken by the company. Placement of such information should be readily identifiable.
For the companies in this situation for their upcoming annual meeting, it is important to be making explicit engagement efforts now rather than waiting until after the proxy statement is mailed. These engagement efforts should be aimed at determining the reasons for the negative votes. These efforts should be completed far enough in advance of the annual meeting to plan specific actions to address shareholder concerns, and to draft appropriate disclosures in the proxy statement. Note that ISS is looking for proxy descriptions of specific new actions taken by the board and expects the information on engagement and responsiveness to be in a readily identifiable place in the proxy.
For more thoughts on the joys of “engagement” with shareholders, see my special Valentine’s Day post on engagement. Love is in the air!