Reputational risk, including on the Voice, essential in ESG considerations
When it comes to determining company stances on hot-button issues, law departments have to ensure that the broader business is ahead of the curve.
In late May, Lawyers Weekly and principal partner LOD hosted the annual Corporate Counsel Summit, at which FairSupply co-founder and chief executive Kimberly Randle moderated a panel session exploring the law department’s top priorities for their environmental, social and governance (ESG) agendas.
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In discussion of the breadth and depth of ESG complexity, Ms Randle asked panellist Dan Wilcock — who is the sustainability and governance manager for the UN Global Compact Network Australia — what he is seeing regarding businesses’ positioning on issues making mainstream headlines.
The proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament, Mr Wilcock mused, is a “really fascinating example” of law departments having to move beyond strict legal compliance considerations and into the navigation of risks in the business environment.
There are countless conversations happening in boardrooms, he noted, about whether or not to take a public position on the Voice, which will be settled by a referendum later this year.
Boards are asking, he noted, “is this what’s expected of us from our investors, our customers, our suppliers?”
“We’ve already seen a number of prominent businesses come out with positions: Woolworths earlier this year, the sport community, Australian Olympic Committee, Tennis Australia … a whole range of sports organisations have come out with a supportive position on the Voice to Parliament. And I think we’re going to see a lot more of that as we get closer to the actual referendum,” he posited.
The further a law department delves into the ESG space, Mr Wilcock surmised, the more one starts to see a movement beyond mere strict legal compliance and towards “addressing potential reputational issues around our actions or inactions as businesses and what the community expectations are”.
Emily Jackson, who is the head of legal for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023, agreed with Ms Randle that a “multifaceted management approach” is needed in shaping not just legal risk and compliance but also reputational risk and compliance and potential shareholder activism and consumer activism.
A lot of revenue for sports, Ms Jackson explained, is generated by way of a brand. As such, it is “incredibly salient” to look at risk from a reputational perspective and more broadly, she said.
“It’s one of the guiding principles that we have when we are looking to enter into relationships with suppliers,” she outlined.
“We have software tools that we use to screen major suppliers that we bring on, and if there’s any reputational risk that comes up from that, that is then flagged up, and a decision is made at an executive leadership team level as to whether to a point.”
“More generally, having a risk-centric approach embedded across the business [is essential]. We’ve done our own internal risk reviews; we’ve engaged external consultants — the reputational management piece is something that comes up as one of the biggest risks for us. Having mitigation strategies in place and ways to embed that at a cultural level has been really crucial,” she detailed.
According to Thomson Reuters director of practical law (Asia and emerging markets) Tim Perry (pictured), businesses often have to consider such sociopolitical and cultural issues and how they position themselves before there are frameworks in place to do so.
“Often, what you see, is that these social issues or environmental issues are understood and canvassed as being important before the regulation comes into place, and organisations need to be forward-thinking and forward-looking, thinking about these issues, integrating those into their own businesses, and then working out how they can best be positioned to comply with reporting when it comes,” he reflected.
For example, he pointed out, many businesses across Australia took public positions ahead of the postal survey pertaining to same-sex marriage.
That debate was, he mused, “a bit of a bellwether for the way we’ve had to think about DEI”.
DEI conversations, Mr Perry recounted, used to centre predominantly around gender equality, and while those issues have not yet been resolved, businesses do now understand that there is much more to DEI than just gender equality.
“Gender is not binary. That’s something we as a society had to come to work with and understand and produce policies that will help workforces and workplaces become better at serving people. And now you’ve got this evolving landscape of inclusion and positive, forward-thinking organisations, creating inclusive workplaces that people can come to and belong and be themselves and thrive and drive their own personal growth and the growth of organisations,” he said.
“We’re also seeing, this year, a raft of legislation from the Albanese government pushing Respect@Work, and a lot of the way that legislation requires organisations to take steps to create safe environments. If you’ve already started doing that because you were thinking about what is right, you don’t have to worry so much about catching up when the regulatory environment comes by you.”