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The trouble with the GlaxoSmithKline pay package was its reward for failure
When the public mood changes, the realisation can take time to sink in. Behaviour that was once acceptable can overnight come to be seen as outrageous. The board of GlaxoSmithKline, a big pharmaceutical company, has found itself at the sharp end of such a mood change. Its shareholders voted to reject the company's remuneration committee report, which would have paid Jean-Pierre Gamier, its Chief Executive, $35m if he lost his job and treated him and his wife as three years older than they actually are for the purpose of increasing their pensions.
The vote is purely advisory, with no binding force. But it leaves the company in a sort of legal limbo. More importantly, it leaves Boardrooms everywhere in a difficult position. The message of shareholder discontent with large executive pay packages and poor corporate performance has never been so clear.
Company bosses have been slow to understand the new mood of outrage among shareholders. Shareholders have for years accepted that 'Tat cat" bosses paid themselves more or less whatever they liked. So it is uncomfortable to face criticism. But behind the criticism is a strong feeling that many chief executives are living according to quite a different set of rules from everyone else.
Although the value of most large companies has fallen considerably over the last few years, bosses have continued to pay themselves more. The value of their pensions has increased and they have struck lavish deals in the form of "golden parachute" severance deals to cushion their fall if they leave. Some of the aspects of Mr Garniefs package that most irritated the shareholders were ones that appeared to reward not superior performance but simply being there. Lots of bosses have such components in their pay.
Of course, companies may set up deals with bosses they no longer want in order to encourage them to go quickly and without a legal fight But a generous advance promise to reward failure is no way to encourage success. Like the "guaranteed bonus" and the lifetime free dental treatment, it offers chief executives a one-way bet
If the GSK vote makes companies cautious about such deals, that is welcome. The market for chief executives is far from perfect There is no rate for the job, positions are often quietly filled rather than openly advertised and boardroom search committees rarely ask, "Could we get someone equally good even if we paid a bit less?" If the board now has to defend its compensation decisions publicly, it may be easier to say '"We'd love to give you a golden parachute but the shareholders would make a fuss" More fuss, please, from shareholders. It's their company, after all