Blog: EY looks at Human Capital Disclosures

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As noted in, the EY Center for Board Matters has released a new study of human capital disclosures. Human capital has recently become recognized, especially by many institutional investors, as among companies’ key assets in creating long-term value. SEC Chair Jay Clayton has observed that, in the past, companies’ most valuable assets were plant, property and equipment, and human capital was primarily a cost. But now, human capital and intellectual property often represent “an essential resource and driver of performance for many companies.” According to EY, a “company’s intangible assets, which include human capital and culture, are now estimated to comprise on average 52% of a company’s market value.” And human capital has “emerged as a critical focus area for stakeholders. There is clear and growing market appetite to understand how companies are managing and measuring human capital.” These developments have led the SEC to propose adding human capital as a topic for discussion in companies’ business narratives. (See this PubCo post.) To see how companies are voluntarily disclosing their practices regarding human capital and culture—and perhaps in anticipation of a new SEC requirement—EY undertook to review the proxy statements of 82 companies in the 2019 Fortune 100. The study may prove to be especially useful for companies trying to understand the contours of human capital disclosure, whether or not the SEC ultimately goes ahead with its proposal to require material human capital disclosures.


Institutional investors, such as State Street Global and BlackRock have indicated that they view human capital as important in long-term value creation. Because of the intense competition for talent, institutional investor BlackRock, for example, views each company’s approach to human capital management as not simply a response to societal challenges, but also an investment issue and a “factor in business continuity and success. In light of evolving market trends like shortages of skilled labor, uneven wage growth, and technology that is transforming the labor market, many companies and investors consider robust HCM a competitive advantage.” According to a BlackRock representative,

“[r]esearch has consistently shown the importance of human capital to company performance. Companies included in Fortune magazine’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ lists earned, over the long-term, excess risk-adjusted returns of 3.5%. Another report surveyed a multitude of studies on human capital and found that there is a positive correlation between human resource initiatives and investment outcomes such as total shareholder return, return on assets, return on earnings, return on investment and return on capital employed. A survey concluded that companies that had a workforce that was not engaged had an average one-year operating margin below 10%; however, those that consistently promoted workers’ well-being had an average one-year operating margin of 27%.”

That view is shared by other institutional investors. In its compilation of investors’ top priorities for companies for 2018 (involving interviews with over 60 institutional investors with an aggregate of $32 trillion under management), EY identified HCM as one of investors’ top five priorities. For many investors, EY reported, hiring and retention of the best talent can be key to remaining competitive over the long term, and company culture can play a role. For example, some investors indicated that “companies that are strongly identified with a culture of improving the environment or benefiting communities have an advantage in attracting top talent, demonstrating that people want to work in companies that have good corporate citizenship.” (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.)

In general, EY found that disclosures were at an “early stage.” EY had two key observations: “One, many companies voluntarily highlight management’s general efforts around certain human capital issues (e.g., diversity and inclusion or broader workforce compensation). However, these disclosures often do not identify key performance indicators (KPIs) or quantify them. Two, many companies broadly address board oversight of human capital management or culture, and more assign related committee oversight responsibilities, but the depth and clarity of these disclosures vary and may not provide a complete picture of the board’s governance in this important area.”


As noted above, in August, the SEC proposed to amend Reg S-K to include human capital as one of the topics discussed as part of the business narrative, to the extent material, “including any human capital measures or objectives that management focuses on in managing the business,…such as, depending on the nature of the registrant’s business and workforce, measures or objectives that address the attraction, development, and retention of personnel.” (See this PubCo post.) The proposal followed a recommendation from the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee that the SEC consider imposing human capital management disclosure requirements as a part of its Disclosure Effectiveness Review and disclosure modernization project. (See this PubCo post.)

In remarks to SEC Investor Advisory Committee members, SEC Chair Jay Clayton contended that disclosure requirements must evolve over time to reflect changes in markets and industry, which is especially apparent with regard to human capital. Increasingly, he said, human capital is the source of economic strength and, for some companies,

“human capital is a mission-critical asset. Disclosure should focus on the material information that a reasonable investor needs to make informed investment and voting decisions; yet, applying this and the other principles I mentioned to human capital in the way businesses assess and disclose, and investors evaluate, for example, revenue or costs of goods sold, is not a simple task. That said, the historical approach of disclosing only the costs of compensation and benefits often is not enough to fully understand the value and impact of human capital on the performance and future prospects of an organization. With that as context, my view is that to move our framework forward we should not attempt to impose rigid standards or metrics for human capital on all public companies. Rather, I think investors would be better served by understanding the lens through which each company looks at its human capital. In this regard, I ask: what questions do boards ask their management teams about human capital and what questions do investors—those who are making investment decisions—ask about human capital? For example, how do investors use human capital information to make relative capital allocations among similar organizations? Armed with general and sector-specific answers to these questions, we can better craft rules and guidance.” (See this PubCo post.)

In previous remarks to the Committee, Clayton observed that the disclosure requirements may need to differ significantly, depending on the industry and even the company. It may not be possible, Clayton observed, to identify metrics that offer market-wide comparability and perhaps not even industry-wide comparability. Importantly, Clayton believed that human capital should be viewed through the eyes of management, whether the focus is on turnover rates, education or experience of the workforce, availability of workers to fill open positions or other factors. (See this PubCo post.)

In its review, EY found the following types of disclosure related to human capital management:

  • Workforce diversity (50%) — Under this topic, companies discussed their efforts to enhance diversity, including “initiatives to empower women and minorities and bring them into leadership positions, diversity statistics and recruitment goals around diverse talent, employee affinity groups, supplier diversity initiatives, collaborations with diversity organizations, and external rewards and recognition.” EY reports that almost a third of those addressing this topic provided data.
  • Workforce compensation (34%) — With regard to compensation of the broader workforce, companies discussed efforts to achieve pay equity (e.g., identify and eliminate pay gaps for women and minorities), minimum wage increases and general approach to comp. Around 40% of those addressing this topic provided specific performance data around pay equity (in addition to the CEO pay ratio) such as the “pay ratio for female to male employees, the pay ratio for minority to nonminority employees and in some cases a measure of the adjustments made to help close the gap. A quarter of the companies reported a specific new minimum or starting wage (usually $15 per hour but in some cases $11 per hour).”
  • Culture initiatives (22%) — EY describes “culture” as a “distinct intangible asset companies should monitor and address to drive their strategy and enhance long-term value. Culture is the strength in people that can energize a business. It is how people collaborate, how decisions are made, how value is created and protected, and how people motivate each other.” Beyond compliance with codes or executive comp, companies identified as culture initiatives “employee surveys and benchmarking reports, employee town halls, unconscious bias trainings, leadership team events, and the inclusion of culture-related messaging and feedback via onboarding processes, performance reviews and exit surveys. Half of the companies that discussed culture initiatives said that they use employee surveys to measure culture. Some of the other KPIs mentioned included diversity hires, employee engagement, turnover and issues escalation resolution. With limited exceptions, the companies did not provide quantitative results for their disclosed KPIs.”
  • Workforce health and safety (22%) — In this context, companies discussed topics such as “employee health and wellness resources and benefits, and, in some cases, safety metrics for the company and its suppliers. KPIs included recordable injury rates and the number of employees participating in certain health and wellness programs, but less than half of those addressing this topic disclosed KPIs and very few provided data.”
  • Workforce skills and capabilities (22%) — The discussion here related to “employee re‑skilling, training, and leadership development programs and related resources….Half of the companies that discussed workforce skills and capabilities provided at least one related quantified KPI measure. This information generally included the aggregate amount of money or employee hours invested in training programs, or the number of employees participating in internal training or career planning programs.”
  • Workforce stability (6%) — The few companies addressing this topic identified “employee engagement scores and certain turnover rates (e.g., turnover rate for high‑performing personnel) as KPIs; few provided quantified results for their KPIs.”


In its proposing release, the SEC cites comments it received on its 2016 Concept Release (see this PubCo post), recommending specific disclosure topics including:

  • “Worker recruitment, employment practices, and hiring practices;
  • Employee benefits and grievance mechanisms;
  • ‘Employee engagement’ or investment in employee training;
  • Workplace health and safety;
  • Strategies and goals related to human capital management and legal or regulatory proceedings related to employee management;
  • Whether employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements; and
  • Employee compensation or incentive structures.”

The proposing release also referred to a rulemaking petition, submitted by the Human Capital Management Coalition, requesting that the SEC adopt new rules requiring disclosure regarding HCM. Although the petition is not explicit with regard to the details of any proposed regulation, it does identify the broad categories of information that the proponents view as “fundamental to human capital analysis”:

  1. “ Workforce demographics (number of full-time and part-time workers, number of contingent workers, policies on and use of subcontracting and outsourcing)
  2. Workforce stability (turnover (voluntary and involuntary), internal hire rate)
  3. Workforce composition (diversity, pay equity policies/audits/ratios)
  4. Workforce skills and capabilities (training, alignment with business strategy, skills gaps)
  5. Workforce culture and empowerment (employee engagement, union representation, work-life initiatives)
  6. Workforce health and safety (work-related injuries and fatalities, lost day rate)Workforce productivity (return on cost of workforce, profit/revenue per full-time employee)
  7. Human rights commitments and their implementation (principles used to evaluate risk, constituency consultation processes, supplier due diligence)
  8. Workforce compensation and incentives (bonus metrics used for employees below the named executive officer level, measures to counterbalance risks created by incentives)”

(See this PubCo post.)

Board oversight

With regard to board oversight, EY generally found the proxy disclosure to lack specificity. While about 40% companies recited that the board oversees HCM or culture or that the audit committee oversees employee codes and the comp committee looks at pay equity, the disclosure lacked detail: EY “found that proxy disclosures would benefit from more specificity around what dimensions of human capital management and culture are overseen by the board and how the board is executing that oversight.”

In addition, in discussing the qualities and experience desired for directors, almost a third of companies “included human capital-related experience among the skills and areas of expertise sought at the board level.” In describing the backgrounds and experience of their directors, 44% of companies “cited human capital-related experience in at least one director biography in describing the key reasons that person is qualified to serve on the board.”

Frameworks and KPIs

Use of a framework can help to standardize disclosure and provide comparability among companies, a characteristic that investors are clamoring for, as discussed in this PubCo post. Among the frameworks identified by EY that view human capital as a key driver of long-term value are

  • The Embankment Project for Inclusive Capital (which proposes metrics and narrative disclosures related to talent),
  • SASB (which provides detailed, industry-specific standards related to, among other things, human capital) (see this PubCo post),
  • The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) (which covers “human capital topics such as recruitment and retention, labor and management relations, health and safety, training and education, diversity and pay equity”), and
  • International Standards Organization (ISO) (which, in ISO 30414:2018, “provides guidelines and metrics for human capital reporting, including diversity, organizational cultural, health and safety, recruitment and turnover, skills and capabilities, and more”). (See this PubCo post.)

Many frameworks identify KPIs that may be useful in communicating about human capital. According to EY, examples of KPIs could include:

  • for diversity—diversity across different employee groups, ratio of labor types;
  • for compensation and pay equity—total sum of pay, pay equity ratios;
  • for attraction, recruitment and turnover—voluntary turnover rates, including for high performers;
  • for culture, including alignment with purpose, values and strategy—standardized employee surveys;
  • for training, learning and development—return on investment in talent, total training hours and spend; and
  • for engagement, health and well-being— engagement index score, absenteeism rate, employees participating in wellness programs


EY predicts that, in the future, “[d]isclosures and company practices will likely continue to be impacted by trends around technology and demographics. A preferred disclosure framework is likely to emerge, with commonality among the KPIs communicated (especially within industries). Boards will likely develop a stronger relationship with the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) and continue to redefine the scope of their oversight of this space. And companies are likely to further integrate disclosures on human capital, culture and other long-term value drivers across a variety of reports beyond CSR or sustainability reports.”

Questions for the Board

EY suggests the following questions for the board:

  • “Does the board set the tone at the top regarding the strategic importance of human capital and culture by dedicating the appropriate level of time and attention to these topics, including at the full board and committee levels?Does the board have the right composition and resources to appropriately oversee culture and talent management in the wake of disruptive talent trends and transformation?
  • In today’s information age, where the role of the CHRO is akin to the role of the CFO through the industrial age, is the board spending enough time meeting with the CHRO to oversee talent strategy and performance?
  • Is the company communicating its culture and values across the workforce such that each individual employee fundamentally understands how her or his day-to-day responsibilities and performance drive strategy and aligns to the company’s purpose?
  • Is the board regularly reviewing with the CHRO talent and culture metrics similar to its quarterly updates on financial metrics with the CFO? How is the company integrating human capital metrics and performance into earnings calls, analyst meetings and its external financial reporting to better communicate long-term value?
  • How are culture and talent goals integrated into incentive compensation programs? How is the company monitoring and adjusting for any unintended consequences?”

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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