Shareholders have been "shut out" of two-thirds of annual general meetings (AGMs) held by FTSE 100 firms, the majority of which are holding meetings behind closed doors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
In response to the UK lockdown, firms including BAE Systems, HSBC and Next are failing to give shareholders the chance to participate virtually, according to lobbying group ShareAction, which has today (20 April) written to FTSE 100 firms urging them to hold "virtual AGMs" this year.
ShareAction is encouraging FTSE 100 bosses to allow for investor participation via similar means carried out by the likes of Taylor Wimpey and RBS, which have taken steps to ensure investors are heard and answered by board members.
The group said virtual AGMs should be accessible for all kinds of shareholders, who should be able to conduct real-time questioning and vote on company resolutions online.
Where possible, ShareAction is also calling for physical meetings to return "whenever it is safe to do so again", using so-called "hybrid AGMs", which also have a virtual element.
The letter, signed by ShareAction's director of corporate engagement Simon Rawson, said: "We are concerned that many UK listed firms have instead chosen to hold their AGMs behind closed doors, severely limiting the opportunities for shareholders to engage with them at a moment when many have valid and important questions to ask of their directors.
"This is not a moment to hide away. The Covid-19 crisis has seen the value of pension assets and shareholdings fall sharply. Management teams are making vitally important decisions that will affect the long-term success of companies, as well as the lives of their workers and customers."
ShareAction also argued that holding AGMs behind closed doors is "likely" to see women disproportionately excluded "since a very limited number of FTSE Chairs and CEOs are female".
In a statement, policy director at the UK Shareholder Association Peter Parry added "Companies that have regular engagement meetings with shareholders, and this includes many highly-regarded businesses, will receive a sympathetic response to whatever decisions they make.
"Companies that have failed to establish trust and give the impression of being evasive with their shareholders will struggle.
"Closed AGM meetings and other actions which limit the flow of information to investors will be viewed with great suspicion. Shareholder support is likely to be forfeited when it is most needed while the ensuing information-vacuum is liable to provoke big share price swings."