The Ethics of Managerial Compensation: The Case of Executive Stock Options

Journal of Business Ethics 78 (1-2):225-235 (2008)
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This paper examines the ethics of contemporary managerial compensation in the context of executive stock options. Economic considerations would dictate that executive stock options should be adjusted to eliminate the effect of overall stock market movements which are beyond the control of the executive. However, in practice, most executive stock options are not adjusted to control for these outside factors. Agency considerations are the most likely culprit. Adjusting for the influence of outside factors, such as a generally rising stock market, from executive stock options sets a higher bar for managers to reach. Furthermore, traditional accounting standards permitted firms that did not adjust options to avoid reporting options as expenses. This presents CEOs and boards of directors with a major ethical dilemma. On the one hand, their duty to their shareholders and stakeholders dictates that executive stock options should be adjusted to eliminate outside noise from unrelated movements in the overall stock market. However, financial statements are presented in the language of accounting. If the overwhelming majority of the users of a language define a particular item in one way, then to deviate from the norm implies that the recipient of such a deviant statement may not properly interpret the statement. Likewise, if the standard practice is for firms to use unadjusted options and thus under-report expenses, to deviate from this industry norm risks that users of financial statements would not properly interpret the financial statements, with perhaps negative consequences for the shareholders. In short, if "everyone else does it," then it could be wrong for an individual firm to deviate from the norm as that would harm the shareholders



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