‘Tone Deaf’ Executive Pay Is Virus Focal Point for ESG Investors

With millions out of work or now reliant on the government for their pay checks, ESG investors are preparing to scrutinize executive pay like never before.

While a number of companies had already begun to link the compensation of top managers with their performance on social and environmental issues before this year, the idea is set to gain much greater traction following the coronavirus outbreak, according to $1.1 trillion asset manager Nuveen LLC. The economic consequences of the spreading Covid-19 pandemic will cause investors to question the existing structure of executive pay and how to incentivize corporate bosses to put greater focus on environmental, social and governance issues, said Peter Reali, Nuveen’s New York-based head of engagement.

“No compensation plan will be left unchanged by Covid-19,” Reali said. “Companies can’t afford to be tone deaf on compensation in terms of the societal context, and the virus will only further the conversation among investors on how ESG should impact wages, bonuses and incentives for executives.”

Fallout from the deepest worldwide downturn since the Great Depression, which has seen businesses respond to lockdowns by laying off staff or putting them on furlough programs, is unevenly distributed and has magnified economic and social inequality from the U.S. to Italy. With this context, executive payouts will be followed more closely than ever, as will the metrics by which managers are graded: Are bosses encouraged to think only of the company’s share price, or are managers also looking at how they treat their employees and the environment?

Companies across the world, including Barclays Plc, L’Oreal SA and Renault SA, have reduced the compensation of senior executives in recent weeks because of loses from the global pandemic.