In my capacity as someone who consults on the creation of stock indices and also in my capacity as personal investor, I have attended roughly three dozen annual shareholder meetings of publicly traded companies. U.S. companies that are publicly traded (meaning available to the general public to buy on open exchanges) hold annual meetings for their owners. At these meetings, members of the board of directors are elected (typically reelected), outside auditors are approved, various resolutions are voted on by shareholders and questions are taken… sort of. In reality, companies, especially during the COVID era of on-line annual meetings, have developed various practices that allow them to avoid unwelcome questions, something which was much harder to do in an auditorium with an open mic.
One practice that I've personally seen a few times during this past meeting season is for the company to imply that all questions have been taken, when in fact, some have not. And this is what appears to have happened at the recent annual meeting of the tech company Oracle. Oracle, despite its name, failed to answer the questions put to it. In this case, the main issue was religious liberty.
Here's what we asked Oracle:
"We are increasingly concerned about the effects on investors and the country of corporate management getting involved in highly contentious political issues. In response to Proposal 5, Oracle’s proxy material repeatedly emphasizes Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, but failed to mention even once religious or political viewpoint diversity. Oracle has endorsed the Equality Act, which diminishes religious liberty protections under current law, and has signed on to the HRC’s statement against state-level laws regulating gender reassignment procedures for minors. Does Oracle’s idea of diversity include traditional religious communities and conservatives? Does taking public stances on one side of highly controversial political and social battles foster an “inclusive culture,” which you claim is your priority?"
The question was sent to the Investor Relations department before the meeting commenced, and it was submitted again through the question-submission app of the annual meeting portal, and the app confirmed that the question was registered.
In addition, since we had seen instances where questions about religious liberty and viewpoint diversity were suppressed publicly due to claims that the questions were not within the topic of the meeting, I added an additional statement, pointing out that since the meeting prep materials do address this issue, partly by touting the partnership with the anti-religious-liberty Human Rights Campaign, it would be inaccurate to pretend the question is beyond the scope of a meeting. In other words, we have seen corporations brag about LGBTQ advocacy in official proxy material distributed as part of the annual meeting and then turn around and say that topic is out of bounds for that same meeting.
Here's exactly what we said about that to Oracle:
"p.s. I’d like to say in advance that this question is well within the scope of the meeting since the proxy material provided for this meeting links to the diversity and inclusion page which specifically mentions the partnership with the Human Rights Campaign through which Oracle endorsed The Equality Act."
We also asked a question about a shareholder resolution that was promoted by a left-of-center consulting firm, that appears designed to embarrass companies for supporting some conservative organizations, with the possible goal of defunding them. We wondered whether Oracle had unwisely and unintentionally invited such attempts by activists when it endorsed a statement spearheaded by Blackstone's Larry Fink in favor of "stakeholder capitalism" as opposed to "shareholder capitalism."
But after having given some answers to some questions that gave management the opportunity to focus on positive achievements, the moderator of the meeting said, “We don’t see any other active questions on the site,” and ended the Q&A session. But there were other questions, ours. Our questions were properly submitted, and confirmed as submitted and, in addition, the first question was sent to Investor Relations via the official email address given on the website. In fact, I know we used the right email address, because shortly after the meeting ended, I wrote to the address again asking for an explanation as to how the company could have claimed that there were no more active questions, and the company did respond to the email. They did not answer the question, or give any explanation, but they did acknowledge that we had asked questions and they pledged to answer, though no time frame was given. I asked again why the company implied that there were no more questions. As of now, that still has not been answered.
There are genuine reasons to be concerned about anti-religious bias at Oracle. The company in its proxy material for the meeting linked to its Diversity and Inclusion page to argue that it was a diverse company, but there does not appear to be any mention of religious diversity and inclusion. The page lists various employee support groups: African American… check. Latino… check. Pride… disability… Asian… Veteran… check, check and check. But religion? Nothing. This is troubling in that it fails to live up to even the low bar that tech companies have set when it comes to faith-friendliness. Support groups (aka Employee Resource Groups or "ERGs") are very common in tech firms and quite a few of them have faith-friendly ones. I have submitted a question in to Oracle about their diversity page and the apparent lack of religious ERGs, as well.
Some might argue that these are private companies and they can do what they want. No one is questioning that. But the question is, what should they want to do? If they truly value diversity, then they should truly value diversity, and not just the currently more fashionable versions of it. The CEO of Intel has it right (An unexpected message from Silicon Valley | WORLD (wng.org)), any true concept of diversity includes our deepest identity of all, our faith. Furthermore, these companies are not privately owned; they are owned by public shareholders. The managers are stewards of our wealth. No matter what a management team's private views about religion, the moment they went public they took on an obligation to set aside their own private predilections and serve the interest of shareholders. It's hard to see how taking positions at odds with roughly half the country on cultural wedge issues serves the interests of shareholders, especially given the fact that stock investors in general are more conservative than the public at large.
Does this mean that Christians should screen-out or boycott companies like this? I think everyone should follow their convictions, but for my part, I think that these companies need more input from Christians, not less.
I will update this story when (or if) the company offers answers to any of the questions we've posed.
Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”