Corporate values aren’t optional, and they’re more controversial and contested than ever. Legal compliance no longer offers a solid foundation for efforts to run an ethical business. On the other hand, aiming to base your values and commitments on the full range of stakeholder pressures and demands is a recipe for incoherence and fragmentation. No matter how energetically you try to shield corporate values from scrutiny and societal turbulence, you are relying on organizational defenses that have turned porous and fragile. Seeking to shore them up and double down is a logical, predictable response, but it won’t work because the original premises are obsolete. Notwithstanding numerous ideological and partisan divisions over the role that business should play in society, most people agree that a corporation should strive to clean up any messes it makes and to treat those it affects with respect. Putting human rights at the center of your values efforts is helpful because they focus on individual agency, bodily autonomy, and dignity—as opposed to imposing values on people who may not share them. Your corporation’s impact on human beings is at the very root of your legal, operational, and reputational risks—even if how those risks might manifest is unpredictable. The good news is that by exploring your company’s real and potential impacts with an open mind and a systemic approach, you can make your ethical commitments more coherent. What are the advantages of a human rights focus? Because business efforts regarding human rights are relatively inchoate, companies may find them exotic and esoteric when compared with the familiar turf of risks and returns. It’s well worth embracing the discomfort and hard work, though, because human rights frameworks can help you bring conceptual and procedural rigor to your ethical commitments. Here’s why. Human rights are universal. Often derided as Western-centric, human rights are contentious and politicized. But it’s indisputable that no one of any ideology or ethnicity welcomes violation of their rights and dignity. A positive business approach to human rights is compatible with an increasingly heterogeneous and pluralistic international environment and with the rising global focus on the rights of individuals. Human rights are comprehensive. Media coverage of human rights issues is often narrowly focused on forced labor and trafficking. But a key advantage of the human rights platform is that it encompasses the spectrum of economic, civil, political, security, and environmental issues. In 2022, for instance, the UN General Assembly recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Placing human rights at the forefront of an environmental responsibility program can thus help companies avoid the common pitfall of treating environmental and social responsibilities as separate issues.  Human rights are grounded in responsibility to society. However well executed, ESG and sustainability frameworks leave it for individual businesses to decide what to do and when to act. Rather than view ethical obligations solely through the lens of financial advantage, human rights center on a corporation’s obligations to general society. It’s not that companies can’t seek to effect positive changes; it’s that such attempts ought not take precedence over the mission to do no harm (or worse, seek to distract us). Human rights align with other ethical frames. The human rights framework encompasses both the legal rigor of compliance and the external focus of sustainability. Therefore, it can help you chart a coherent, holistic approach to ethical business. It’s important to note that human rights include the right to self-determination. They can therefore help companies approach such challenging issues as political engagement and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Human rights stand at the nexus of corporate responsibility and geopolitics. Unlike ESG, human rights frameworks don’t envisage companies enacting good works in a world devoid of other actors, power dynamics, and political pressures—or doing it only when there’s a business case for them. The framework explicitly considers the relative positions and responsibilities of business and government in society. Human rights are aligned with our aspirations. Popular unrest over the negative impacts of business isn’t about to go away. Global interest in human rights and freedoms is flourishing. Cultivating respect for human rights can help companies meet and anticipate emerging challenges. Human rights align with regulatory attention. The EU is expanding its list of legally mandated human rights obligations, and the United States is taking action that pertains to trafficking and forced labor. Authorities in countries including the United States, the Philippines, and the Netherlands are laying the groundwork for class-action lawsuits on human impacts of climate change. Overall, if you wish to anticipate and plan for future regulation on both social and environmental issues, a superb starting place is to survey your human rights impacts. Human rights consider trade-offs. While human rights are indivisible, complexities are inevitable. Some human rights appear to contradict one another—the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, for example. Robust guidance and a body of law weigh how to prioritize and negotiate them. These approaches are practical. BSR, for instance, made recommendations as to how Meta could better understand and address competing human rights pressures regarding end-to-end messaging encryption; notwithstanding clear trade-offs between the needs to protect user privacy and to protect users from child exploitation, human rights methodologies enabled a path forward. Human rights aren’t corporate-centric . Because human rights frameworks require direct consultation with your stakeholders, they can act to counterbalance any tendency to place the company’s interests at the center of the universe. At the same time, human rights frameworks provide a way to prioritize stakeholder demands by addressing impact and causation. STEPS TO HIGHER GROUND Neither ESG nor legal compliance frameworks provide clear guidance helping companies move beyond instrumental self-interest to rigorously consider their ethical obligations to wider society. Values and agendas are contentious, and generic commitments to integrity are of little help in the face of mounting stakeholder expectations and political pressures. Consideration of human rights offers a path out of this thicket because they are universal and non-ideological. Human rights obligations can provide a solid basis for ethical commitments in your code of conduct that go beyond legal compliance. Basing your purpose, values, and supporting ethical commitments on your impact on human beings is likely to prove robust and defensible over the long term. Human rights can also enable you to design and set guardrails (including prohibitions, but also guidance to help teams evaluate investments and projects) that shape your environmental and social strategy and incentives. Finally, your human rights obligations can help you to make connections among imperatives in legal compliance and social responsibility. Human rights cannot solve all systemic challenges. They raise important questions about the legitimacy (and limitations) of any corporate effort to exert political influence. Fast Company – work-life (1)

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