The role of business in advancing human rights has been an emerging topic in management studies for several years. The topic, however, developed within a niche of the discipline while mainstream business scholars continued with their business as usual.
At this year’s annual meetings of the Academy of Management (AoM) and the Society of Business Ethics (SBE), however, business and human rights for the first time moved toward center stage. At the opening panel of the SBE meeting in Vancouver, Heather Elms, Associate Professor of International Business at the Kogod School of Business at American University, called the field one of the new mega-trends in management studies. Both events included an unprecedented number of sessions specifically on business and human rights, including a professional development workshop at the AoM meeting, intended to define a research agenda, to which our Center contributed.
Which factors led to the growing recognition that human rights matter in management studies? There are many, but these three stand out:
(1) The relative weakness of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) concept
After decades of research on CSR, it has become clear to many scholars that the concept is too broad to influence corporate practice. Florian Wettstein, Professor of Business Ethics at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, highlighted in his presentation at the AoM meeting the normative, institutional, and operational strengths of the business and human rights concept in comparison to CSR.
(2) The empirical relevance of business and human rights
In an economy that is increasingly global, business and human rights challenges are becoming ubiquitous in business practice. Addressing them conceptually responds to this new business reality.
(3) New publication outlets
The recently founded interdisciplinary Business and Human Rights Journal (Cambridge, 2015) provides a new outlet for scholarship, while the leading journal in business ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, now explicitly asks for publications on business and human rights. Such publication opportunities set critical incentives for scholars to contribute to the topic.
The attention that business and human rights has received during these two important academic events is positive. We need a critical mass to ensure the uptake of the topic in research and teaching to eventually affect corporate practice.
Yet, business and human rights is still far from being mainstream in management studies. The current research agenda is still unfocused; sharpening it will take time and persistence. NYU’s Center is keen to contribute to this effort by highlighting the need for a standards-based approach that clarifies what is expected of companies in specific industry-settings and enables critical stakeholders to hold them to account. Our forthcoming textbook (Routledge 2016) is a first attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the field and shape how business and human rights is taught at law and business schools.
Dorothée Baumann-Pauly is the Center's Research Director.