6 ways companies can integrate human rights

Michaela Lee, manager, BSR and Nazila Vali, knowledge and partnerships lead, Business Call to Action

November 7, 2018

Over the past decade, we have seen a remarkable rise in the value placed on human rights in the private sector – from a scenario where the ambitions of the business community and human rights advocates seemed irreconcilable, to one in which stakeholders have begun to approach a shared understanding of the risks, challenges, and opportunities involved. The UN human rights council’s endorsement of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011, the result of a long consultative process among companies, activists, governments and others, still represents the most historic breakthrough in the field of business and human rights.

Yet, despite the extraordinary progress made in recent years, challenges and threats to human rights continue, some longstanding, some newly emerging. In recent years, businesses – more specifically tech businesses – have increasing influence over almost every area of human life. They own and manage the platforms through which we communicate, organise and meet, and run many formerly public services, including healthcare and utilities. Consequently, the decisions businesses make have increasingly wide-ranging effects on human rights – from freedom of expression to privacy, liberty and security.

On the positive side, many in the business community are more focused than ever on the need to integrate human rights principles into their activities. Companies in the hospitality and construction sectors have joined the fight against human trafficking. Companies in the garment industry are actively engaged in improving poor working conditions in global supply chains; agriculture and food companies are working to permanently eliminate child labour; and financial services companies are doubling their efforts to better understand their role as investors in addressing and mitigating these risks.

Many businesses rightfully see such integration as a source of opportunity, allowing them to attract and retain employees, consumers, and investors. While improved application of human rights standards in the workplace brings benefits, this must also be seen as a business imperative. The negative impacts of bad human rights practices are borne by the company in the form of reputational, financial, operational or even legal risks. In addition, local communities where businesses and their subsidiaries operate are also negatively impacted, as are employees and consumers.

While large companies have more resources to make the necessary changes to improve their human rights standards, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may encounter much greater difficulties when starting the journey from intention to action. To gain insight into this journey, Business Call to Action, in partnership with the non-profit organisation BSR, undertook in-depth interviews with seven SME leaders implementing inclusive business initiatives across a range of industries, including agriculture, food and beverage, transport and logistics, financial services, information communication and technology, manufacturing, construction and housing, and more.

Significantly, interviewees did not only see human rights as important for avoiding the above-mentioned negative impacts – many also acknowledged the opportunities that lay in ensuring high human rights standards across their products, workforce and consumers. The insights have been summarised into the six best practices for SMEs to integrate human rights into their business operations:

  1. Understand risks and impacts: identify your business’s human rights risks and impacts and know your scope of responsibility. ​
  2. Educate employees: ensure they are aware of basic human rights principles so they are better prepared and can help integrate them into the business. ​
  3. Articulate commitment: publicly share your company’s commitment to human rights through a policy or statement.
  4. Embed in the business: integrate human rights into existing business systems and processes; develop capacity building for relevant personnel.
  5. Be transparent: engage with relevant stakeholders and rights-holders; report publicly on progress and challenges.
  6. Provide remedy: develop an appropriate remedy where the company has caused or contributed to harm.

By following these steps, a business can make significant strides towards improving human rights standards along its entire value chain, which can have dramatic follow-on effects in terms of employee job satisfaction, community support, and customer satisfaction.

If we are to succeed in advancing human rights worldwide, we must all share a responsibility to move from commitments to impactful everyday actions. And we must challenge ourselves to prevent abusive conditions from happening. Businesses must be prepared to understand their impacts and work with others to embed human rights in all they do until they become a universal reality.


BCtA is a multi-stakeholder initiative hosted by UNDP to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by challenging companies to develop inclusive business models that engage people at the base of the economic pyramid. To learn more visit BCtA website

This guest post was originally published in the Guardian