I was among 2,500 participants who came from 130 countries to participate in the 2017 United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights. One in four represented private sector organizations. That’s the largest percentage ever, yet I was struck by how small the number was given the gravity of the forum topics—and the fact that businesses are confronted by a growing array of human rights challenges.
These challenges arise in the changing landscape of international trade and mobility, which set ground rules not only for economic activity but also for a wide range of employment policies and environmental decisions. They come out of technological advances—think gig economy and fair wages, big data and privacy, and social media and safety. And they can be found within the blurring boundaries between government, private sector, and civil society in terms of what they are able and willing to do to protect fundamental human rights. In light of these challenges, it has become apparent that managers must be prepared to understand and address issues related to human rights.
If all managers were mindful of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, they would at least be equipped to recognize instances in which their companies, directly or indirectly, cause or contribute to encroachments on human rights. Managers would also appreciate the potential of their organizations to have a positive effect on human rights by providing decent jobs, as well as producing needed goods and services. They would be in a better position to build systems to improve human rights performance, manage risks, and create value for their workforce, as well as other stakeholders.
It is hard to object to such an aspiration. By show of hands, who is not in favor of human rights? Indeed, to some people, awarenessis not enough. Managers should be defenders of human rights, leveraging their power and influence to ensure their people are treated with dignity. Others go further, expecting managers to be champions of human rights in and around their organizations, industries, and communities. There is nothing wrong with wanting more. I do. But as I learned at the U.N. Forum, attaining even a basic level of awareness about human rights among managers in global companies is challenging. There are at least three related reasons.
First, problems associated with human rights are complicated and dynamic. With global supply chains, for example, human rights issues cut across countries with significant governance, regulatory, and cultural differences. And the issues often involve subcontracting suppliers that have little or no contact with the downstream companies they serve. The issues differ radically from industry to industry. Technology companies have their own supply chain problems but are also grappling with how to address harmful content online that threatens the human rights or personal security and participation in free elections. (This latter challenge is the topic of a recent report by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.)
Large companies can be quite complex, making it hard for leaders to have enough visibility to spot risks related to human rights and enough authority to change policies and processes. That could be one reason why there are still fewer than 400 companies in the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s list of companies that have adopted a human rights policy. Adding to the challenge, human rights issues are rarely unique to individual companies. Addressing them effectively requires industry-wide, multi-stakeholder initiatives that can set standards—and, ideally, enforce them. These initiatives raise competitiveness concerns and require bold leadership beyond the boundaries of a single company.
Second, the prevailing mindset has been that human rights problems are about legal compliance. This mindset relegates responsibility for dealing with human rights to lawyers, NGOs, and public officials. And it signals that when it comes to human rights, there are no win-win opportunities. Instead, there is inevitable tension between the objectives of private sector companies and the rights of individuals—workers or consumers. Respecting human rights is reduced to compliance with rules and laws. In a world in which many governments are unable or unwilling to provide adequate protection, that’s simply not enough.
Yet it is increasingly clear that human rights are a matter for business managers. In a 2015 report, the Economist Intelligence Unit found that “a large majority of executives now believe that business is an important player in respecting human rights, and that what their companies do—or fail to do—affects those rights.” In its survey of executives, the Economist found that “83% of respondents agree (74% of whom do so strongly) that human rights are a matter for business as well as governments. Similarly, 71% say that their company’s responsibility to respect these rights goes beyond simple obedience to local laws.” The survey also showed that longer-term opportunities, such as building sustainable relationships with local communities, have become major drivers of corporate activities related to human rights.
The third obstacle to achieving broad awareness about human rights among corporate managers is that few business schools have incorporated the topic into their scholarship, teaching, or campus life. Even though the complexity and dynamism of human rights should appeal to business scholars, strong adherence to traditional disciplines has inhibited the introduction of human rights as a business school focus. A bias toward generalizability in scholarly business journals likewise has limited the publication potential of articles about human rights, which tend to be interdisciplinary and context-specific. The lack of scholarship has led to a shortage of learning material, cases studies, and other interactive content that can stimulate discussion about human rights issues. So when it comes to advancing human rights, business schools have left the responsibility to law and public policy schools.
But that is changing. Following the U.N. Global Forum on Business and Human Rights, representatives from more than 20 business schools from Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East met for the first time at the Geneva School of Economics and Management to discuss the need for business education to include instruction and scholarship on business and human rights. Led by NYU’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and the Alliance Manchester Business School in the United Kingdom, this group of schools is looking to accelerate the development of business and human rights in business education. In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the schools said, “Business schools have an important role to play in helping companies respond to [human rights] challenges, whether by teaching future business leaders, conducting research on cutting-edge issues, or engaging directly with corporate leaders.”
Regarding instruction, the group is looking into how to create content (cases, videos, simulations, etc.) that shows how human rights issues are relevant to different business disciplines, such as accounting, finance, marketing, and information systems. They are developing opportunities to share ideas, involve student organizations, and strengthen the participation of business school leaders. By engaging companies, government, and NGOs to define problems, the group hopes to inspire useful research by business scholars—ideally working together with practitioners and researchers in other disciplines. The schools are looking into capitalizing on the strength of business schools to convene executives from across firms to learn from each other, define metrics, and share best practices.
The group is already connected with the PRME Working Group on Business and Human Rights and the Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum and is reaching out to engage other business schools around the globe, especially in developing countries. Anyone interested in participating in this collaborative effort should contact Dorothée Baumann-Pauly at email@example.com, but first read her AACSB blog post with Michael Posner, the director of the NYU Stern Center, on “Why Business Education Should Include Human Rights Issues.”
Don’t wait too long; for businesses to address human rights challenges in a way that makes the world a better place, proactive leadership and support from business schools is essential.