Why Teaching Business and Human Rights at a Business School is a Challenge

Why Teaching Business and Human Rights at a Business School is a Challenge
January 26, 2016

Every year, there are more students interested in enrolling in my business and human rights course the University of Lausanne in Switzerland than there are seats available. However, three recurring issues make teaching BHR at business schools particularly challenging.

First, there is a lack of integration of BHR courses in core business school curricula. BHR classes are still a rarity at business schools today. BHR courses are typically electives or at least not mandatory for earning a degree. Links between BHR classes and other classes taught in the program are often lacking. It is therefore unclear how students will apply the course content in their future careers.

Will BHR be seen as critical for future business and career success, or will it be treated as a “nice-to-have addition,” as it is currently being treated in most curricula?

Ideally, BHR topics should be integrated in existing core courses (marketing, accounting etc.). However, we are a long way off from full integration of BHR topics. In the meantime, BHR instructors need to build the bridges, for example by linking the course content of BHR classes with concepts that students are already familiar (e.g. risk management and innovation management).

In business practice, the urgency to manage BHR challenges has been growing steadily in the past years. Since the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in June 2011, the expectation that corporations respect human rights in their core business operations has become an explicit requirement. Human rights scandals (often in companies’ global supply chains) draw attention to these unresolved issues. Referring to these empirical cases is helpful to demonstrate to students that BHR is a topic for future managers and that solving these issues is not easy. There is a need for more in-depth analysis of these examples (like the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights’ recent analysis of the human rights challenges in the apparel industry in Bangladesh) that show the vital trade-offs for companies in these complex human rights dilemmas.

Secondly, management subfields are dominated by a very narrow mainstream business paradigm. Commentators on current business school education have pointed out that business students are wired to think within a narrow framework of profit maximization. In this context, it is not surprising that business students often ask about the so-called “business case for human rights” in the first teaching session of a business and human rights class. There is a need for more case studies showing that the implementation of strong human rights programs does not exclude profitability and in fact, may sometimes even be the factor that enables it. These cases do exist, and CEOs such as Paul Polman from Unilever and Tim Cook of Apple consistently point them out publicly. Often, however, the positive effects on the company’s bottom line have a long time horizon; Unilever’s target date for its Sustainable Living Plan, for example, is not until 2020.

To help students understand that at the outset, the short-term profit motive cannot be the only driver for a corporation to commit to human rights, they need to realize that the conditions under which the mainstream business paradigm has been developed have changed dramatically with the development of a globalized economy. Managers can no longer rely on state actors to effectively design and implement regulation, particularly if production is outsourced to countries with weak governance.

The teaching challenge of the first sessions of a BHR course is therefore to get students to critically review the (ideal) conception of the neoliberal paradigm (the state provides the rules of the game; corporations operate within this framework) and compare it to today’s business reality. By reviewing the business landscape of today (no world government, limited regulatory power of nation-states on global business operations, and an increasing number of failed states; relative power of multinational corporations; technological advances in communication technology and its related empowerment of NGOs; global media penetration and growing sensitivity to human rights issues), students start to critically reflect on the theoretical frame that has been assumed to be the premise of business education.

Lastly, there is a lack of solution-oriented resources for teaching BHR. Many of the current activities in this field are too generic to give managers the practical guidance they need to implement robust human rights programs in their specific industry context. Business students are weary of broad concepts such as “due diligence” or “best practices.”

In the classes I teach at the Faculty of Business and Economics at HEC Lausanne, I have therefore found it helpful to refer to cases in which companies committed to concrete industry standards and have reported publicly against this standard on the basis of key performance indicators, as for example in the context of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs). Such case studies of MSIs also show that establishing a level playing field for human rights reduces the risks associated with go-it-alone commitments and definitions of corporate human rights due diligence. The question as to whether a specific approach is able to effectively address human rights governance gaps provides students with a powerful criteria to distinguish the trees in the growing forest of BHR implementation guidelines, benchmarks, and reporting frameworks.


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