In today’s world, it’s fairly common to have a corporate human rights policy.
A Shift report recently analysed 74 companies on the Financial Times’ Global 500 ranking and concluded that approximately 93% of companies had some type of formal commitment acknowledging or respecting human rights.
This reflects what’s become increasingly clear: businesses have a role to play in respecting and protecting human rights. And a human rights policy sends a clear signal that businesses are taking that responsibility seriously.
Alas, for the 7% of companies that have yet to take formal action on human rights issues, there is no time like the present. For those having trouble figuring out where to start, I’ve outlined three easy steps.
- Know your business. This may sound obvious, but it is arguably the most essential piece in writing your policy. Understanding your business – the specifics of your supply chain or who bears responsibility for human rights-related issues, for example – provides a bird’s eye view of your current approach and can help you identify gaps and oversights where they exist. To write a proper policy, you need to understand where you excel and where you still have room for improvement. There are a few ways you can do this:
- Conduct a human rights impact assessment – identify and prioritise potential human rights risks and where they occur in your value chain.
- Catalogue your current activities – take a detailed inventory of all policies, value statements, and risk mitigation mechanisms that you already have in place.
- Consult your (internal and external) stakeholders – take stock of their current and future expectations on human rights issues.
- Map your impacts – determine where there is the greatest potential for human rights-related risks and opportunities at various geographic levels.
Ineffective human rights policies are generic and oversimplified. Being aware of the specific issues that impact your business, where you currently stand, and what stakeholders care about most will inform your policy in a positive and tangible way. This makes for an easier and more informative policy exercise. Speaking of informative…
- Know the literature. Much to my excitement, the field of business and human rights is evolving in real-time. There is a widening body of frameworks, declarations, principles, NGOs, membership initiatives, and resources that discuss the myriad of human rights issues businesses should be aware of. Understandably, companies sometimes find themselves overwhelmed simply by the thought of deciphering these documents, let alone aligning them with their business strategies. But thankfully, the premises are quite similar: companies should acknowledge and take accurate measures to respect human rights across their operations. If you’re new to this literature, there are some essential frameworks to know:
- Interested in gaining a foundational understanding and history of universal human rights? Try the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Do you represent a sector that is particularly labor-intensive? You’ll need the ILO Declarations on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
- Want to learn more about the responsibility of businesses to respect and protect human rights? See the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
These three documents serve a dual purpose as a primer on human rights and a guideline for understanding the role businesses play. At a minimum, a good policy will refer directly to at least one of these documents in the introduction and then use the tenants of the framework to guide the way. And, speaking of guides…
- Know what’s next. Writing a human rights policy is just the beginning of a company’s human rights journey. It is not, in any way, a means to an end. Those charged with writing the policy should be prepared to spend considerable time embedding and implementing the policy throughout the company’s operational and management systems. As a matter of fact, the human rights policy is the ideal place to communicate how you’ll do this. As you begin to write your policy, keep in mind that you should also work on developing an action plan to implement your policy. Here are some steps you can take:
- Review and consolidate current statements.
- Develop a plan of action to engage senior leaders and build buy-in with department heads who will be responsible for implementing the policy and any strategic re-alignment across the company.
- Evaluate or build up appropriate mechanisms to address, track, mitigate, remedy, and communicate human rights risks and violations should they occur.
- Communicate your policy and commitment, and over time, your actions and results.
As daunting as this all may sound, there is one bit of relief: there is no such thing as a perfect human rights policy! With all the tools and frameworks out there, businesses should see their human rights policy as a living, breathing document – ready to be revisited and adapted as the topic evolves each year.
So why does all this matter? Why should we take human rights seriously? The answer is fairly simple: companies impact people and people have human rights. Whether your industry is tech or agriculture or somewhere in between, business and human rights are inextricably linked in our rapidly globalizing culture. Evidence suggests businesses understand this and are adapting their businesses accordingly. Because at the end of the day, human rights is just good business.