Compensation Committee Wake-Up Call – The ‘Other Obstacle’ To Leadership Transition

By Michael Conover

I have previously discussed the inevitable transition of numerous baby boomers holding leadership posts in nonprofit organizations. The topic has been well-covered in a variety of publications for nearly a decade.

However, I believe the seismic shift that some have predicted has failed to materialize on a scale that was predicted. I attribute this to a variety of factors, including: delayed retirements out of financial need or resistance to change; belief that age 75 is the new 65; or just procrastination.

The slowdown in the rate of change will not soften its impact. It may intensify it. The delay on the part of these baby boomer executives and the boards to whom they report could increase the likelihood of an unexpected and disruptive leadership crisis. The problems can range from a noticeable decline in performance to an abrupt departure caused by sickness or death. Leadership changes under the best of circumstances are not 100 percent successful; thus, in crisis mode, the odds of success are much slimmer.

The other obstacle I allude to in my title is executive retirement arrangements (or lack of same). As organizations finally confront the departure of a long-tenured and critically important executive, the details of the retirement arrangements come to the forefront. This is the point at which many organizations and executives discover the price that will be paid for failing to address this important issue well in advance. Proper advance planning can not only minimize financial uncertainties for the executive and the organization that may interfere with retirement planning, but can prevent other potential and very expensive obstacles as well.

Many compensation committees have failed to proactively raise the subject of retirement plans and acknowledge the impact that they will have on an orderly retirement / leadership transition. There are a variety of reasons including: financial costs; reluctance to broach the subject of leadership change; mistaken assumptions that arrangements made many years ago will address the needs; embarrassment that arrangements are inadequate or have not been made; etc. Committee members must realize that time is not on their side for addressing retirement-related arrangements. Delaying can create many negative impacts for both the executive and the organization.

I would like to describe a few different scenarios that illustrate the types of situations we have discovered in “11th hour” reviews of retirement arrangements:

Plan Document Failures: Plan documents (e.g., employment contracts, deferred compensation arrangements, life insurance plans, etc.) developed many years ago and / or those that have been drafted without the benefit of needed expertise to ensure compliance with current requirements pose potential problems to the unwary.

The inclusion of what appear to be ordinary terms in the arrangements, or the failure to include critical details, can prove disastrous in terms of potential tax liability and penalties for the executive as well as the employer. Language included to ensure that retirement resources are secure may produce inadvertent vesting of a benefit and tax liability long before it is actually available. Similarly, incorrectly structuring payments can result in an unforeseen tax liability and punitive excise tax penalties.

If these issues are identified proactively or within a time period that corrective actions can be taken, the problems can be minimized. There is, however, a point at which it is simply too late.

Plan Administration Failures: In some instances, well-drafted plan documents are not adhered to from an administrative standpoint. Contributions, excess contributions, payment amounts and / or payment terms are made that fail to follow plan requirements. The failure to ensure compliance may result in adverse tax consequences to the executive and the organization.

Failure to properly recognize and report details of retirement arrangements are also common. The executive’s W-2 form, personal tax return and the organization’s Form 990 may all need to include information related to the plan arrangements as well as timely recognition of income when vesting occurs. Discovering these issues after the fact can necessitate amending prior year returns and also involve adverse tax consequences to the executive and the organization.

Improbable Catch Up: A compensation committee’s failure to establish a specific position on retirement benefits for the executive, as well as a specific objective for the level of benefits to be provided well in advance of the probable retirement event, drastically diminishes the likelihood of providing any level of benefit beyond that provided to all employees. Waiting until just a year or two prior to retirement will likely place an unreasonable financial burden on the organization to fund a benefit that might have been spread over many years of employment. Similarly, large contributions / payments toward the very end of employment may trigger an excess benefit situation, or the appearance of same, that may create adverse consequences for the executive and the organization.

The Wake-Up Call

Most compensation committees spend most of their time on decisions about current cash compensation (i.e., salary, bonus and incentive) matters for executives. Clearly, these are important matters and ones that require the committee’s attention in light of the disclosure of this information to external stakeholders and the public. I am not suggesting the committee members spend any less time on them.

I am however suggesting that compensation committees incorporate an immediate and recurring review of the organization’s retirement program to ensure that all documentation, administration and funding are in accordance with the organization’s policy, on track to meet stated objectives and fully compliant with pertinent regulatory and reporting requirements. Regular checkups may also be beneficial in helping the organization to be more attentive and proactive on succession / transition needs. As we have pointed out, delay on these matters is the enemy of effective solutions.

Executive management also has a role to play in this wake up call. Steps should be taken to ensure that the compensation committee has access to all internal and external information and advice that will assist them in their efforts to ensure that all steps have been taken to ensure that the retirement arrangements pose no obstacles to the inevitable retirement and leadership succession that every organization faces.

This article originally appeared in BDO USA, LLP’s “Nonprofit Standard” newsletter (Fall 2018). Copyright © 2018 BDO USA, LLP. All rights reserved. www.bdo.com