An increasingly large number of multi-national corporations (MNCs) are actively assuming their responsibility to demonstrate their respect for human rights in the workplace, not just within the “four walls” of their own premises, but both upstream and downstream along their value chain, i.e. with suppliers and distributors of the goods or services they produce.
As a result, most MNCs today have made public commitments to develop and put in place policies, as well as due diligence and remediation processes, in order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how the company addresses its human rights impacts, either directly, or indirectly through their business partners.
These policies focus mainly on fostering open and inclusive workplaces and include provisions on respect for human rights, supplier guiding principles, and community and stakeholder engagement.
Consequently, from a company perspective, the concept of human rights in the workplace is not something that falls under the exclusive remit of the human resources department. In-house public affairs and communication directors have a critical role to play in the implementation of such policies – both internally and externally – as companies become less defensive and more transparent on issues that have been identified, as well as in the corrective actions that are being implemented.
Championing human rights at work
First, communication directors have a responsibility to influence senior management to understand and embrace the importance and benefits of making human rights part of the company strategy, as a means of achieving a more sustainable business success. To name just a few benefits: more engaged employees, higher productivity, better qualified suppliers, access to more socially-conscious customers, greater competitive advantage, enhanced growth potential, higher ratings with investors, stronger brand image and corporate reputation...
In close partnership with other company areas such as human resources, ethics and compliance and/or legal affairs, the communication director also plays an instrumental role in co-creating the policies, which is no different than defining what the company stands for in terms of human rights in the workplace and what this means for its suppliers, employees and customers. As part of this drafting process, they will have a key responsibility in proactively engaging with stakeholders such as government agencies, multilateral entities, social investors, human rights organisations, NGOs, labour unions, suppliers and customers, to make sure these policies and processes address their concerns and expectations.
“The multi-market presence of MNCs will evidently add an element of complexity due to the different cultural value sets.”
Once approved by senior management, the communication director will then carry a big responsibility in branding and communicating the policy across the organisation and to key external stakeholders – probably one of the most important steps in the entire process.
In fact, at the end of the day the success of policy compliance rests with company employees: it’s what they do or don’t do in their day-to-day jobs that will determine whether or not the company lives up to its commitments. Hence, internal communications will play a critical role to ensure company employees, as well as those of its key business partners, suppliers and customers, understand how to avoid causing (or contributing to) adverse human rights impacts as a result of business actions, as well as how to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts directly linked to their operations, products or services.
In this respect, the multi-market presence of MNCs will evidently add an element of complexity for a communication director, due to the different cultural value sets and the need for the companyto apply the same standards everywhere, which in the case of multiple facilities and a large workforce implies extensive communication plans to achieve the required shifts in corporate culture.
Playing a supporting role
Externally, meaningful dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders will once again be critical to communicate the policy and processes to regulators, multilateral organisations, human rights groups, trade unions and other key audiences. At the same time, this outreach will be extremely helpful in helping the organisation deal with future issues proactively and collaboratively.
Once the policy has been released and implemented, the communication director will play an ongoing supporting role in early identification and expeditious resolution of issues, reporting on progress and continuous stakeholder engagement.
“Meaningful dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders will once again be critical to communicate the policy.”
Today there is greater scrutiny than there was 20 years ago, and several external parties will not be looking so much to the good things companies do, but rather to what they do when things go wrong. In such situations, the communication function will need to be fast in controlling the message and reaching out to key constituencies to rectify and contain any misinformation.
As far as brand communications is concerned, today there is a trend for consumers wanting to know the story behind products and/or ingredients. The concepts of fair trade or sustainably sourced aim to communicate to the consumer the responsible practices manufacturers have in procuring their raw materials or ingredients, or during the production process. Hence, there is also a great opportunity for the communication director to work hand-in-hand with marketing departments and connect the stories behind the company’s good human rights practices to its products or services – a tremendous advantage that will help them stand out from the competition.
“Communication directors play a critical role in demonstrating this respect by helping achieve organisational alignment.”
Finally, it’s also worth noting that those companies which have had a head start with this process can also be tremendously influential in encouraging other industry partners – particularly SMEs – to adopt similar policies and practices. Hence, communication director networks, as well as industry and professional associations, can also be powerful vehicles for the communication director to share best practices and help escalate these efforts.
In closing, embracing the idea that business has a human rights responsibility implies that the concept of respect for human rights in the workplace goes beyond traditional labour relations. In this context, communication directors play a critical role in demonstrating this respect by helping achieve organisational alignment beyond the four walls of the workplace, and by ensuring greater transparency and meaningful, continuous engagement with external stakeholders.
The role of the communication director in promoting human rights at the workplace:
• Influence senior management to understand and embrace the importance of making human rights part of company strategy.
• Co-create policies and defining what the company stands for in terms of human rights in the workplace.
• Ensure the company applies the same standards across all markets it operates in, regardless of different cultural values.
• Dialogue with a wide range of external stakeholders and other key audiences.
• Support the identification resolution of issues, reporting on progress and continuous stakeholder engagement.
• Help connect the stories behind the company’s good human rights practices to its products or services.