Top four tips for establishing your company’s approach to human rights

Cover of our latest Directions supplement focusing on human rights

This week’s Human Rights Roundtable, hosted in collaboration with Trafigura, ABN AMRO and The Institute For Human Rights & Business in London, coincided with the launch of our most recent Directions supplement ‘Human Rights: The time is now’. The purpose of both the supplement and the roundtable was to try and demystify human rights and shed light on some of the practical actions that companies can take to map a manageable journey in the face of this to this increasingly important and sometimes complex space.

So what did we learn? Firstly, that companies are coming under increasing pressure to identify and address human rights issues in their operations, supply chains, and product and service portfolios. And that a failure to do so can bring serious risks: not only to brand value, reputation and relationships, but also in the face of increasing regulation and litigation.

Human rights itself is also shifting — issues like access to water, freedom of expression and LGBTQ rights are becoming more relevant for business. And more traditional issues like privacy and labour standards are evolving — for example, as technology changes relationships between company, consumer, and employee, and the SDGs start to raise the profile of more inclusive social provisions such as rights to pensions, health care and skills development. In many ways human rights is just becoming a holistic lens through which to view the impacts that companies have on people in the course of doing business.

At the same time aligning corporate governance, management, and reporting processes with human rights is not a simple or overnight task. An obvious example is the fact that oversight often sits with legal, risk or compliance teams, whereas implementation is often led by sustainability, public affairs or human resources. There are lots of people and processes to align and that’s just within a company’s operations.

All of this can seem a bit overwhelming. But while human rights may appear to be yet another set of issues for companies to grapple with alongside a whole host of existing social and environmental challenges, through our work and the conversations we have with companies making headway in the space — including at the roundtable — a different perspective is emerging:

– That a sound approach to human rights is something that can not only align with — but also strengthen and complement — existing sustainability or CSR efforts

– That viewing human rights as a separate set of issues is missing the point — much better to think of it as a lens through which to build a more people-centred approach

– That the tools and support exist to help companies identify the most important issues and integrate them gradually into their business practices

– (And perhaps most importantly) That there’s a window of opportunity to get ahead of the game and do so on your own terms.

During the roundtable discussion the UNGP Reporting Framework was called out as a particularly useful tool — and it can be useful even if you’re not reporting against it! Because of the way it’s structured around a series of smart questions and principles, it’s flexible enough to be used in a number of different ways — to help identify gaps or unearth blind spots, to challenge assumptions and to progress the conversation internally and externally. What we also heard is that developing a human rights-based approach is a journey.

So what are some of the practical things that can help you get started on that journey or take an existing approach to the next level?

Here’s our top four:

1. Get going — don’t stand still on human rights, even baby steps are worth taking because the external landscape is not standing still.

2. Get up to speed — understanding the wider human rights landscape is important. If you haven’t already it’s worth spending some time familiarising yourself with key areas of policy and practice including within your own sector. You don’t have to become an expert!

3. Start small — think creatively of ways to dip your toe in the water. Use some of the UNGP reporting framework’s questions in an internal workshop to get the conversation going, or identify your baseline risks by applying the framework’s salient issues process as part of a materiality assessment. These are just a couple of examples of the sorts of activities that can act as stepping stones and they should add plenty of value along the way.

4. Take an outside-in approach — everyone at our roundtable stressed the importance of external engagement whether it’s in helping you to figure out your salient issues, change the conversation in your company or sector, shifting mindsets, or driving collective action. What’s also clear is that it’s not always the usual suspects you need to speak to. Don’t be afraid to open up new channels and embrace an outside-in approach to help you accelerate your understanding.

These are just some of the sorts of practical things that can help you unpick what human rights really means for your business. The key is not to stand still.

The Directions supplement ‘Human rights: The time is now’ is available to download from our website at www.salterbaxter.com