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Britain looks to address inequality with executive pay measures

Robert Dudley, chief executive officer of BP Plc, speaks during the 2017 CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in Houston, Texas, on March 7, 2017.
F. Carter Smith | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Robert Dudley, chief executive officer of BP Plc, speaks during the 2017 CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in Houston, Texas, on March 7, 2017.

Worried by a long-term rise in inequality, Britain announced on Tuesday a series of measures aimed at increasing transparency over executive compensation, hoping to ramp up pressure on companies that offer lavish salaries for bosses but restrict pay for regular employees.

The proposals include plans to force all publicly listed companies to publish their wage ratio, comparing their chief executive's salary with that of the average worker, as well as the creation of a register that "names and shames" firms that faced shareholder opposition over executive pay levels.

In much of the Western world, public anger is growing over what critics say are excessive wages for senior business leaders. That has helped contribute to a populist backlash in many countries, as the gap between the salaries of employees and their managers has widened markedly.

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In the United States, pay packages for top bosses grew last year, with the highest paid, Thomas M. Rutledge, the chief executive of Charter Communications, making $98 million. That was 2,617 times the average salary for American workers

The difference is not as stark in Britain, but has nevertheless increased significantly in recent years. The average chief executive of a company listed on the FTSE 100, the country's benchmark stock index, made 129 times as much as a regular employee last year, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. That was up from 45 times as much 20 years ago.

But it has become an increasing point of contention here.

In one case, investors in the energy company BP protested against the $19.6 million compensation package awarded to the company's chief executive, Robert W. Dudley, in 2016 — a majority voted against the deal in a nonbinding vote. And the salary of Martin Sorrell, the head of the advertising giant WPP, regularly attracts pushback from shareholders. Mr. Sorrell made 48 million pounds, or about $62 million, last year.

That expanding gulf has spurred the government's proposals, which it plans to put into effect by June. In addition to forcing the publication of pay ratios, officials would set up a public register listing companies that faced opposition on pay packages from at least a fifth of shareholders.

Listed businesses would be pushed to improve employee representation on their boards, by assigning a nonexecutive director to represent workers, creating an employee advisory council or nominating a director from the work force. There is no punishment for failing to do so, but companies would have to announce why they had not followed the requirements.

"Today's reforms will build on our strong reputation and ensure our largest companies are more transparent and accountable to their employees and shareholders," Greg Clark, Britain's business secretary, said in a news release.

British Prime Minister Theresa May
Jack Taylor | WPA Pool | Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Theresa May wrote in The Mail that some firms had "ignored the concerns of their shareholders by awarding pay rises to bosses that far outstrip the company's performance."

The changes are not entirely unique. In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2015 required publicly traded corporations to begin providing standard information on pay disparities in 2018 (though the S.E.C. said in February that it might reconsider the measure). And in Germany, employees are often well represented on the supervisory boards of large companies.

Still, unions and analysts criticized the measures, arguing that they lacked teeth.

The Trades Union Congress, an umbrella organization of labor unions, derided the plans as a "box-ticking exercise," while the opposition Labour Party said that the efforts could be easily ignored.

Dirk Jenter, an associate professor of finance at the London School of Economics who has surveyed executive compensation, said he had doubts about whether the measures would make much difference and warned that some might even be counterproductive.

In particular, companies that are in labor-intensive industries or that employ large numbers of people in lower-paid jobs, like supermarkets, would look worse than investment banks, where average worker pay is higher.

"We're punishing the companies that employ a lot of people," Mr. Jenter said. "It in essence says you have a choice between employing low-paid employees in your companies — janitors, cleaners, drivers — or outsourcing the services to other companies or machines."

Sir Martin Sorrell
Dan Mescon | CNBC
Sir Martin Sorrell

Greg Campbell, a partner in the employment department at the law firm Mishcon de Reya, said the efforts to increase worker representation were also relatively mild, because company directors in Britain are already required to consider employee interests.

"A diversity of views is always worth having," he said, "but I don't think it is enough to really shift the dial."

Still, some are hopeful that the measures will raise awareness of worsening inequality.

"This is obviously a more voluntary nudge approach to improve corporate governance, but I think there is no magic bullet," said Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. "Regulation can only take you so far because a lot of these issues are around organizational culture and leadership."