Boards & Governance
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Ray Wizbowski
Chief Marketing Officer

Fiduciary duties of board members: A guide for effective governance and reduced liability risk

March 15, 2024
0 min read
female board member reading about fiduciary duties

Board members hold a position of significant trust and responsibility. They are tasked with overseeing the strategic direction of the company, ensuring its financial health and safeguarding the interests of its shareholders.

Fulfilling these obligations requires a firm understanding of a board member's fiduciary duties.

What are the core fiduciary duties of a board member?

The three core fiduciary duties of a board member are the duty of care, the duty of loyalty and the duty of obedience. These duties form the foundation of good corporate governance and guide board members in making decisions that are in the best interests of the corporation.

  • Duty of care: This duty requires board members to act with reasonable diligence and prudence. This translates to attending meetings, actively participating in discussions, reviewing relevant materials, and making informed decisions based on all available information. Board members should possess the necessary skills and qualifications to understand the complexities of the business and exercise sound judgment.
  • Duty of loyalty: This duty demands undivided loyalty to the corporation and its shareholders. Board members must avoid conflicts of interest and prioritize the company's well-being above personal gain or the interests of any other entity. This includes refraining from using their position for personal advantage, taking corporate opportunities for themselves or engaging in self-dealing transactions.
  • Duty of obedience: This duty compels board members to act in accordance with the law and the company's governing documents, such as the articles of incorporation and bylaws. This ensures the corporation operates within legal boundaries and adheres to established procedures.

What are some practical tips for fulfilling the duty of care?

Board members can demonstrate their commitment to the duty of care by implementing the following practices:

  • Regular meeting attendance and preparation: Regularly attend board meetings and diligently review materials beforehand.
  • Asking questions and seeking clarification: Don't hesitate to ask questions, seek clarification on complex issues, and request additional information to make informed decisions.
  • Staying informed: Keep abreast of industry trends, regulations and potential risks impacting the company.
  • Maintaining independence: Approach decisions objectively, free from undue influence or personal agendas.

How can a board member identify and manage conflicts of interest?

A conflict of interest arises when a board member's personal or professional interests could potentially conflict with their duty to act in the best interests of the corporation. Boards typically have established procedures for identifying and disclosing potential conflicts. Here's what board members can do:

  • Disclosure: If a conflict arises, promptly disclose it to the board and abstain from discussions and votes related to the matter.
  • Recusal: When appropriate, recuse oneself from participating in specific decisions to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
  • Seeking guidance: Consult with the corporate secretary or general counsel to determine if a conflict exists and how to best manage it.

What about the duty of loyalty in situations involving corporate opportunities?

A board member must not take advantage of a business opportunity that rightfully belongs to the corporation. If an opportunity arises, the board member should present it to the company and allow the board to decide whether to pursue it.

Can board members be held personally liable for breaching their fiduciary duties?

Yes, board members can be held personally liable for breaching their fiduciary duties if their actions or inactions cause harm to the corporation. This liability can take several forms, including:

  • Lawsuits: Shareholders or creditors may sue board members for breach of fiduciary duty if their actions result in financial losses for the corporation.
  • Regulatory action: Government agencies may impose fines or other penalties on board members who violate their fiduciary duties.
  • Reputational damage: Breaches of fiduciary duty can damage the board member's reputation and make it difficult for them to serve on future boards.

What are some common examples of how board members can breach their fiduciary duties?

There are many ways a board member can breach their fiduciary duties. Here are a few common examples:

  • Making decisions without adequate information: This could involve failing to attend important meetings, review key financial reports, or ask questions about proposed transactions.
  • Engaging in self-dealing: This occurs when a board member uses their position for personal gain, such as awarding contracts to their own businesses or approving risky transactions that benefit them financially.
  • Ignoring red flags: This could involve failing to investigate potential wrongdoing within the corporation or turning a blind eye to unethical behavior by management.
  • Failing to oversee management: Board members have a duty to oversee the actions of management and ensure they are acting in the best interests of the corporation.

What steps can board members take to protect themselves from personal liability?

There are several steps board members can take to minimize their risk of personal liability:

  • Educate themselves on their fiduciary duties: Board members should have a clear understanding of their legal obligations. This may involve attending training sessions or seeking guidance from legal counsel.
  • Ask questions and stay informed: Board members should actively participate in board meetings, ask questions about proposed transactions, and maintain a good understanding of the corporation's business and finances.
  • Maintain independence from management: Board members should avoid becoming too close to management and should be willing to challenge management decisions when necessary.
  • Document their actions: Board members should keep detailed minutes of board meetings and document their decision-making process. This can be helpful in defending against claims of breach of fiduciary duty.
  • Disclose conflicts of interest and recuse themselves from decisions when necessary: Board members should disclose any potential conflicts of interest to the board and recuse themselves from voting on matters where they have a conflict.
  • Obtain directors and officers (D&O) insurance: D&O insurance can help provide financial protection for board members who are sued for breach of fiduciary duty.

What resources are available to further understand legal and fiduciary duties?

Numerous resources can help board members deepen their understanding of legal and fiduciary duties. These include:

A cornerstone of effective board service

Understanding and upholding legal and fiduciary duties is paramount for board members. By actively participating in board activities, asking informed questions, maintaining independence and seeking guidance when necessary, board members can effectively fulfill their responsibilities and contribute to the success of the corporation.

Remember, this blog post is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is always advisable to consult with legal counsel for specific guidance on your obligations as a board member.


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