Board of directors

The legal responsibilities of boards and board members vary with the nature of the organization, and between jurisdictions. For companies with publicly trading stock, these responsibilities are typically much more rigorous and complex than for those of other types.

Outside directors bring outside experience and perspectives to the board. For example, for a company that serves a domestic market only, the presence of CEOs from global multinational corporations as outside directors can help to provide insights on export and import opportunities and international trade options. One of the arguments for having outside directors is that they can keep a watchful eye on the inside directors and on the way the organization is run. Outside directors are unlikely to tolerate "insider dealing" between inside directors, as outside directors do not benefit from the company or organization. Outside directors are often useful in handling disputes between inside directors, or between shareholders and the board. They are thought to be advantageous because they can be objective and present little risk of conflict of interest. On the other hand, they might lack familiarity with the specific issues connected to the organization's governance, and they might not know about the industry or sector in which the organization is operating.

The responsibilities of a board of directors vary depending on the nature and type of business entity and the laws applying to the entity (see types of business entity). For example, the nature of the business entity may be one that is traded on a public market (public company), not traded on a public market (a private, limited or closely held company), owned by family members (a family business), or exempt from income taxes (a non-profit, not for profit, or tax-exempt entity). There are numerous types of business entities available throughout the world such as a corporation, limited liability company, cooperative, business trust, partnership, private limited company, and public limited company.

A contrasting view is that in large public companies it is upper management and not boards that wield practical power, because boards delegate nearly all of their power to the top executive employees, adopting their recommendations almost without fail. As a practical matter, executives even choose the directors, with shareholders normally following management recommendations and voting for them.

In the United States, the board of directors (elected by the shareholders) is often equivalent to the supervisory board, while the executive board may often be known as the executive committee (operating committee or executive council), composed of the CEO and their direct reports (other C-level officers, division/subsidiary heads).

A company is an entity distinct alike from its shareholders and its directors. Some of its powers may, according to its articles, be exercised by directors, certain other powers may be reserved for the shareholders in general meeting. If powers of management are vested in the directors, they and they alone can exercise these powers. The only way in which the general body of shareholders can control the exercise of powers by the articles in the directors is by altering the articles, or, if opportunity arises under the articles, by refusing to re-elect the directors of whose actions they disapprove. They cannot themselves usurp the powers which by the articles are vested in the directors any more than the directors can usurp the powers vested by the articles in the general body of shareholders.

In countries with co-determination, a fixed fraction of the board is elected by the corporation's workers.

Directors may also leave office by resignation or death. In some legal systems, directors may also be removed by a resolution of the remaining directors (in some countries they may only do so "with cause"; in others the power is unrestricted).

Directors must exercise their powers for a proper purpose. While in many instances an improper purpose is readily evident, such as a director looking to enrich themselves or divert an investment opportunity to a relative, such breaches usually involve a breach of the director's duty to act in good faith. Greater difficulties arise where the director, while acting in good faith, is serving a purpose that is not regarded by the law as proper.

This does not mean, however, that the board cannot agree to the company entering into a contract which binds the company to a certain course, even if certain actions in that course will require further board approval. The company remains bound, but the directors retain the discretion to vote against taking the future actions (although that may involve a breach by the company of the contract that the board previously approved).

As fiduciaries, the directors may not put themselves in a position where their interests and duties conflict with the duties that they owe to the company. The law takes the view that good faith must not only be done, but must be manifestly seen to be done, and zealously patrols the conduct of directors in this regard; and will not allow directors to escape liability by asserting that his decision was in fact well founded. Traditionally, the law has divided conflicts of duty and interest into three sub-categories.

However, in many jurisdictions the members of the company are permitted to ratify transactions which would otherwise fall foul of this principle. It is also largely accepted in most jurisdictions that this principle can be overridden in the company's constitution.

Directors must not, without the informed consent of the company, use for their own profit the company's assets, opportunities, or information. This prohibition is much less flexible than the prohibition against the transactions with the company, and attempts to circumvent it using provisions in the articles have met with limited success.

"(i) that what the directors did was so related to the affairs of the company that it can properly be said to have been done in the course of their management and in the utilisation of their opportunities and special knowledge as directors; and (ii) that what they did resulted in profit to themselves."

And accordingly, the directors were required to disgorge the profits that they made, and the shareholders received their windfall.

Directors cannot compete directly with the company without a conflict of interest arising. Similarly, they should not act as directors of competing companies, as their duties to each company would then conflict with each other.

However, this decision was based firmly in the older notions (see above) that prevailed at the time as to the mode of corporate decision making, and effective control residing in the shareholders; if they elected and put up with an incompetent decision maker, they should not have recourse to complain.

"such care as an ordinary man might be expected to take on his own behalf."

This was a dual subjective and objective test, and one deliberately pitched at a higher level.

In most jurisdictions, the law provides for a variety of remedies in the event of a breach by the directors of their duties:

Social boards recognise that they are part of society and that they require more than a licence to operate to succeed. They balance short-term shareholder pressure against long-term value creation, managing the business for a plurality of stakeholders including employees, shareholders, supply chains and civil society.

The law requires companies listed on the major stock exchanges (NYSE, NASDAQ) to have a majority of independent directors—directors who are not otherwise employed by the firm or in a business relationship with it.