OHS must raise its profile in the debate of directors’ liability and accountability

The global financial crisis has highlighted many business management issues.  Probably one of the most contentious is executive remuneration which is based on the question “should executives receive performance bonuses when the company is not performing well, ie. not returning profits to shareholders?”  But underpinning even this question is one of accountability.

Business leaders, commentators, lawyers and politicians are comfortable in discussing financial and corporate accountability but extend that discussion to other areas of business and they respond with a confused stare or outright dismissal of the proposal.

This week, the Australian Financial Review newspaper ran a page one story: “Revealed: directors face harsher liability penalties.”  [None of the AFR articles are freely accessible online] The article revolved around Australian Government plans to “break an impasse between state governments over proposals to harmonise conflicting commonwealth and state directors’ liability laws.”

As should not be surprising from a business paper, the discussion centred on financial and corporate governance issues but OHS obligations were floating behind all of the business-speak.  This was particularly obvious with this paragraph:

“Federal ministers have expressed concerns that onerous directors’ liability rules increase the cost of directors’ insurance and discourage them from taking board seats.”

This paragraph shows that the first response to any corporate trouble is insurance.  This cowardly response is short-sighted and contributes to the unnecessary growth in litigation which the directors regularly complain and which increases the cost of liability insurance premiums.

It is also an acknowledgement that the introduction of new rules does not address the behaviour intended, it leads to investigating ways of avoiding accountability for one’s actions.

The second point of that paragraph is that people are more likely to refuse to participate than to undertake sufficient education that would allow them to perform the job better and with less risk.  The response should not be “it’s too risky so I won’t do it” but “let’s get better informed so that my decisions are more valid and the risk is reduced”.

It is clear that lawyers are running the agenda when semantics enter the argument.  The AFR article goes one to say “there are fears about confusion over the distinction between executive and non-executive directors”.  This confusion comes from the main concern of directors being to cover one’s arse rather than focusing on the job at hand and the corporate purpose.

The AFR article makes no mention of OHS but the accompanying article “Duty weighs heavily” by reporters James Eyers and Annabel Hepworth does.  Eyers and Hepworth look back through several decades of law reform investigations and reviews to show the history of similar director concerns.

But it is a more recent statistic that is the nub of the article.  A Treasurysurvey of directors from top Australian listed companies, in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Company Directors, found that

“…71 per cent of those surveyed had declined taking board seats mainly because of their fears of personal liability, while 46 per cent had resigned from a board position because of the issue.”

These concerns largely deal with false market rumours, manipulating securities prices, criminal cartels, consumer protection laws and others.  It is this company that the importance of taking responsibility for OHS should be pushed by the safety advocates but it seems that the business and corporate contexts of OHS are only ever discussed by the corporate lawyers.  And yet, OHS professionals complain about not getting heard at Board level.  Perhaps what is needed is one of these OHS professionals to take a business degree so that OHS can be described in terms business understand.

Of course the risk is that OHS may be found to be contrary to all the basic capitalist concepts and that the only way it can be applied in a business is for the application of legal “wriggle room” from the concept of reasonably practicable.

On 6 November 2009, Bob Baxt (a partners with law firm Freehills and the chair of the law committee with AICD) responded to the Eyers and Hepworth article with a personal opinion describing directors and senior managers already in the “firing line” from the corporate regulators.  He seems to see this as unfair but those executives are in the “firing line” because they are suspected of doing the wrong thing.

Baxt describes the “reverse onus of proof” as an “obnoxious device” and he may be right but he needs to consider why such a provision was introduced in the first place – business managers were not complying with their legislative obligations, they were avoiding responsibility, taking short cuts for personal wealth, having workers die and then winding up the company to avoid prosecution.

Too many business professionals focus on “cause and effect” and see injustice.  Yet if they looked a little further back and analysed the “causes” a bit more carefully they may just see that in many cases the regulatory changes have come about as a result of their own misdeeds.

The analysis of capitalism that resulted from the global financial crisis has faded very quickly as the markets rebound.  Companies are applying the same behaviours that led to that crisis.  Most business analysts and executives talk about leadership as the be-all and end-all but we should not be lead in the same direction as in the past as we are likely to end up in the same place.  True leadership is about accepting mistakes and heading in a fresh direction where such mistakes cannot be repeated.

Those who are bleating about how corporate executives are being bludgeoned by regulation and accountability need to get out of the leafy middle-class suburbs and the office buildings with bayside views and take some time to reflect on how we came to be in such an economic mess and why workers continue to get injured, maimed and killed.  It may just be that accepting responsibility is the new foundation required to build a humaneand profitable future.

Kevin Jones

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