Symbolic Shareholder Democracy: Toward a Behavioral Understanding of the Role of Shareholder Voting in CEO Dismissals

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Abstract

We investigate the effect of expressive shareholder dissent voting, in which shareholders use their votes symbolically to express their discontent with management, on subsequent chief executive officer (CEO) dismissals. Using the routine but highly symbolic executive board discharge proposal voted on at the annual shareholder meetings of German firms, we argue that the board of directors understands these votes as a "vote of confidence in management" that challenges the CEO's mandate to lead the firm. Arguing that board chairs are uniquely positioned to take up the stance of a steward of the firm and its leadership, we examine how independent and family board chairs moderate the board's response to expressive voting dissent. Using a sample of German public firms over the period 2008-2015, we find that expressive voting dissent increases the chance of CEO dismissal increasingly with the level of dissent expressed. Contrary to prevailing agency theoretical expectations, we do not find that independent chairs are more responsive to expressive voting dissent, nor that this relationship is strengthened by the degree of minority institutional investor ownership of the firm. Consistent with the symbolic perspective on shareholder voting that we seek to develop, however, we find that family chairs are more likely to lead the board to dismiss the CEO due to the intrinsic disvalue they incur from symbolic leadership legitimacy challenges in their firms, and that the positive effect of having a family chair on the dissent induced chance of CEO dismissal is strengthened by the level of family ownership in the firm.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages24
JournalOrganization Science
Early online dateNov 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 17 Nov 2022

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