The business world can’t ignore human rights

The business world can’t ignore human rights
April 19, 2016

Any corporation within the global marketplace is exposed to human rights risks. Clothing retailers, such as Walmart and H&M, face unsafe factory conditions in their supply chains. Tech companies, such as Apple, Twitter and Facebook, wrestle with user expectations around privacy and freedom of expression, and oil and mining companies, such as Shell or BP, struggle to provide security for their employees, local communities and their facilities in often volatile political situations. These issues pose reputational and operational risks for companies, and the urgency to address these challenges is increasing as today’s factory disaster becomes tomorrow’s front-page news around the world.

The expectation for global corporations to behave ethically is not new. Yet, the rather vague demand is finally taking shape as a distinct business and human rights (BHR) field emerges in academia and practice. Companies are responding by evolving toward a framework that embeds human rights responsibilities in core business operations. Some companies, including Unilever and Nike, have started to develop sustainable business models that explicitly include human rights elements as objectives for future business success. At Nike, for example, the working conditions under which products are being made and product quality are considered equally important, and both are monitored systematically.

In academia, the business and human rights field is no longer considered a variation of corporate social responsibility, but rather a distinct field. A recent article in Oxford Bibliographies Online provides an overview of the growing body of research on business and human rights, and the newly founded Cambridge Business and Human Rights Journal now provides scholars with a specialized outlet consolidating the latest research in the field.

This surge of interest in business and human rights raises a number of questions on how to implement a corporation’s human rights commitment and how to educate future business leaders such that human rights is part and parcel to their work. A comprehensive survey of the Economist’s Intelligent Unit in 2015 showed that companies, even the ones that are in principle committed to human rights, have no clear idea what exactly is expected from them in implementing practices that ensure attention toward this critical issue.

This is where academic institutions must evolve their curricula to support corporate practice through research and teaching. By launching specific research projects, aligning the content of core management courses, and by offering specialized classes that prepare future business leaders to address challenges in the context of human rights, business schools can demonstrate their commitment to a prosperous and just global economy. Adopting an explicit business and human rights framework for their business education would also set these schools apart from institutions that treat business and human rights as a “nice-to have” addition to, but not a requirement of, their curriculum.

Networks of business and human rights instructors in the U.S. and Europe are coming together to advocate for the topic to become mainstream. Yet to date, actual courses on business and human rights at business schools, as well as specific teaching resources, are still scarce.

Fortunately, at a global level, the concept of BHR is gaining traction. In 2015, leading business practitioners published a paper on business sustainability in partnership with the World Economic Forum. For this group, business sustainability includes human rights. Some CEOs including Apple’s Tim Cook or Unilever’s Paul Polman even consider a concerted effort toward the advancement of human rights in their business practices as central to their business success.

However, business leaders need to make explicit that they are looking for an adjusted skill set in future managers. They need to reach out to business schools and encourage curricular development that effectively prepares future managers to lead on human rights challenges. Ambidextrous managers that are able to manage profits, as well as clearly defined social responsibilities, are valuable job candidates for forward-looking global companies. Business schools have the capacity to develop these skills in their students, and they have a responsibility to do so in order to make them most marketable for today’s global marketplace.


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