Companies are increasingly expected to engage on prominent public policy issues facing society. Such areas of public policy interfacing with business include migration and the global refugee crisis, LGBTI rights, freedom of expression and terrorism, climate change, white supremacy, and human rights in the global economy. Recent examples in the United States, for example, include significant CEO interventions to challenge white supremacy (the Charlottesville episode), address the fate of “dreamers” facing deportation (DACA), support freedom of expression by professional football players and even some owners (kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem), and promote solutions to climate change (opposing the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord). These are areas of growing governance gaps both domestically and internationally. Companies and their CEOs have been looked to in order to bridge this gap.

The Edelman Trust Barometer (an annual online survey in 28 countries with more than 33.000 respondents) calculates that “business is on the brink of distrust” and, at the same time, that “business [is considered] the last retaining wall” such that the stakes are high for business as are the expectations by society that business will act to improve both the economic and social conditions. (See, e.g., “Corporate Joust with Morality.” On the normative framework of corporate engagement on public policy priorities, see Caroline Kaeb, Case Western Reserve International Law Review (forthcoming)). More frequently, the companies themselves speak of the “moral responsibility of business,” as most prominently voiced by Tim Cook of Apple. The New York Times captured this phenomenon by postulating about the “moral voice of corporate America.” This changing role of business on issues of concern for a company’s customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders goes beyond traditional lobbying efforts aimed at reactively supporting or opposing legislation for the pursuit of short-term profits; rather, the expectation continues to build for companies to take a stance on societal challenges, both locally and globally, and to constructively offer a corporate contribution towards solving these challenges.

Closely related to this issue now is whether university education has been able to adapt to the new demands on their business and management instruction in higher education worldwide. In order to make human rights an integral part of board room considerations, we must start with the beginning; we need to address human rights in the formative stage of the managers of tomorrow.

The PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education) Working Group on Business and Human Rights together with the Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum have conducted a survey among university instructors of business and human rights related course offerings worldwide. The survey results are based on 71 responses globally, with a majority of submissions from the United States. The findings of this survey show that there has been a steady increase in business and human rights instruction in higher education since 2005. Regarding the distribution between business schools and law schools, a preliminary study of all 100 top business and law schools in the United States has shown that business schools have large offerings on broader corporate responsibility and, in particular, sustainability-related topics, which in fact exceed the offerings on related topics at law schools. At the same time, the particular topic of business and human rights is being covered primarily by law schools rather than business schools. The survey confirmed this trend with about three times as many business and human rights offerings at law schools compared to business schools.

This vividly illustrates that a normative human rights-based methodology to management challenges and business ethics dilemmas is not fully absorbed yet by business schools. It is not surprising that business and human rights has been primarily part of law school instruction considering that human rights have long been construed as legal rights, first and foremost. Yet, Professor Florian Wettstein has correctly emphasized that human rights also enshrine moral rights, which can and should inform business ethics studies.

Human rights as codified by international treaties and instruments (such as the UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR) provide a readily available framework, which can be applied in a business context (with some qualifications). Using human rights as a framework for business conduct offers several advantages to other corporate responsibility framings, such as corporate citizenship, corporate sustainability, social contract, and license to operate, among others. Namely, a human rights methodology for business helps to make the social impact of business more granular by focusing on the effect on the individual in his or her own right or as part of a local community or society as a whole. It therefore aligns responsible business conduct even more directly with the interests of a company’s respective stakeholders.

Overall, the survey produced mixed results regarding the specifications of business and human rights in business school teaching and research. It has been encouraging, for example, that across business and law schools, the question whether faculty are engaged in research activities on business and human rights activities. has overwhelmingly been answered with “yes.” Yet, at the same time, it is clear that business and human rights often still lack a true institutional home within business schools in the form of a center or a concentration or certificate on business and human rights. (For example, 65.2% answered “no” to the question, “Does your academic institution have a center for business and human rights (or related topics of corporate responsibility/sustainability or social enterprise)?” About 78% have answered “no” to the question, “Is the course part of a concentration/certificate/concurrent degree on business and human rights (or related topics of corporate responsibility/sustainability or social enterprise)?”) So, while some areas show promise, the subject is not fully integrated yet—in its own standing—into the organizational structure of business schools. Those who are instructing business and human rights related topics at schools of law, business, or public affairs or any other department at a university should consider filling out this short survey as a means of supporting this effort.

Finally, our research has shown a stark discrepancy between supply and demand on business and human rights issues. While business reality is closely intertwined with human rights issues and many companies now recognize this relationship, management education is still lagging behind on the issue. According to a survey of the Economist Intelligence Unit, an overwhelming majority of corporate executives consider human rights to be an important matter for business. And yet, most universities have not adjusted to this new reality by incorporating human rights thinking into their programming and academic activities. To address this issue, the PRME Business and Human Rights Working Group is encouraging major companies to sign the 2014 open letter by the UN Global Compact to convey to business schools deans the demand and need for management talent, which is educated on issues of human rights and social responsibility. We strongly believe that qualitative and empirical data as well as the registered support from business will help to make the strongest possible case to universities and business schools that 21st century business education needs to be a holistic one, educating business leaders on how to manage their relationship with stakeholders, the environment, and society in a sustainable way. As Professor Michael Porter and scholar Mark Kramer have emphasized, companies do not operate in a vacuum but they can only be as successful if the business environment and societies in which they operate also thrive.
We have seen significant progress over the last decade in terms of the normative framing of business and human rights. The challenge now is to fully embed these principles into the organizational structures of companies and business schools alike.

Dr. Caroline Kaeb is Assistant Professor of Business Law and Human Rights at the University of Connecticut. Ambassador David Scheffer is the Mayer Brown/Robert A. Helman Professor of Law and Director, Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. They serve as co-chairs of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights with the U.N. Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME).


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