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Organizational Change
UN Business and Human Rights Forum, Day 3:
Business Must Approach DEI Issues Through a Human Rights Lens

The irony at this Forum is that so much of the conversation is about abuses in company supply chains, often far outside company walls. However, race discrimination is also close to home — taking place every day within the companies themselves. 

Richard Howitt is providing daily updates on the UN Business and Human Rights Forum 2020. Read highlights from day one and two.

More than fifty years after agreement of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the UN Business and Human Rights Forum this week saw international business confront whether its response to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 passes human rights scrutiny.

The tragic killing of dozens of Black people in the United States in the past year provoked worldwide protest — with major US corporations including Disney, BlackRock, General Motors, Target, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan all lining up to condemn racism and reach in to their pockets for anti-racist causes.

But critics were quick to accuse some in business of making more social media posts about racism than they have Black employees. Companies were making passionate proclamations just as lay-offs forced by the COVID crisis saw their Black employees disproportionately affected.

The irony at this Forum is that so much of the rest of the conversation is about abuses in company supply chains, often far from the company. However, race discrimination is also close to home — taking place every day within the companies themselves. Both major business speakers in this session at the UN Forum were Black company leaders. What we heard was perhaps most telling on the urgency to act.

“For the first time this year, I’ve been asked: ‘Given everything going on, how are you doing?’,” said Gerran Denning, Senior Counsel at PepsiCo. “What should this brand do — not as a human rights lawyer, but as a Black man?”

He asserted that companies like his have to reappraise at every level.

“It’s about our people — our own recruitment, retention and development. But it’s equally about enhancing supplier capacity, including building capacity in emerging markets,” Denning said.

Companies worldwide — not just in the US — can join forces with anti-racist organisations, target black-owned contractors, and link to schools and colleges in areas with high Black and minority ethnic populations.

The challenge is that the discrimination that takes place is often subtle and unconscious. 

Most of us would accept the need to actively challenge unconscious bias and stereotyping. But South African human rights activist Pregs Govender went further — using the Forum to accuse companies of “gaslighting,” inflicting abuse by discrediting the Black person’s thoughts, feelings and experience.

This is a training issue for all of us, at the very least. However, a clear theme of the discussion is that companies must treat this as a systemic problem. Business can never reach equality in the future, if they haven’t come to terms with the past.

As Dominique Day, chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, explained:

“Companies today have to recognise they have been super-charged through atrocity — the trade and trafficking of generations of enslaved Africans. We’ve largely mitigated colonial practices, but the enormous network which allowed it to thrive is still very much present. Understand that there was a system of exploitation which leads white supremacy to play out today in our companies, in our families.”

This is partly answered by companies being willing to honestly admit their own past wrongs.

“It should be uncomfortable,” Day says.

“At Microsoft — and it will be true for many American corporations — this is the first year when domestic discrimination and xenophobia will be featured in our CSR report,” says Merisa Heu-Weller, the company’s Chief of Corporate Responsibility, reflecting this new approach of open introspection.

Microsoft has recognised its need to double Black representation in senior leadership positions. Beyond this, it is seeking to address how its products and services have been unaffordable for many in the Black community; and address similarly challenging problems about how its algorithms import the prejudices of human attitudes into artificial intelligence.

As Heu-Weller concluded: “This is so personal for so many people in the company — we’re not going to wait anymore.”

All companies will have specific challenges linked to their own products and services. Can you list yours? 

The legacy of slavery also takes companies into the difficult territory of arguments about how the global system of trade and investment causes systemic inequalities. Corporate proclamations against racism become all the more authentic if companies acknowledge this system-level challenge.

At least part of the answer comes in action towards creating and implementing new global governance rules which change the system, of which the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can play a prominent role.

Treating people as rights-holders, whose rights are being violated and about which remediation must take place, changes the mindset at all levels — from the Board rooms of global companies to millions of workplaces at the local level, throughout the world.

The concepts of due diligence, remediation, policy commitment; the need to identify adverse impacts, to mitigate and prevent them; the simple need to provide respect — are all tools from the Guiding Principles. They do not provide the answer to racism or any other human rights violation, but they do provide tools to help find the answer.

In addition, race discrimination is far from an historic issue, across the world — it’s why countries are passing Modern Slavery Acts.

Discrimination based on race and ethnicity is sadly present everywhere, not just in the US. The Forum heard a passionate plea from Rohingya activist Mohamad Roshed — for companies to stop trading with business tied to the Myanmar military, responsible for attacks and mass displacement of his people. New research published at the Forum by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre finds one-third of physical attacks on human rights defenders are on indigenous people amongst other community leaders. 

As this Forum was coming to a close, the clear and simple message was for companies to genuinely listen to their employees and stakeholders of color.