What business schools need to know about business and human rights education

Posted in: Business and society, Education, Human rights


Management graduates must be equipped with the skills to address the legal and ethical responsibilities of business to protect and respect human rights in global supply chains. In this piece, Annie Snelson-Powell reflects on the role business schools should play in business and human rights education.


Human Rights Day is a reminder for us all that human rights abuses occur on a daily basis and on a massive scale. This is, in part, a consequence of a globalised economy where businesses in a broad range of industries can exploit human rights in the pursuit of profit.  As we look to the future, business schools will need to deliver management graduates equipped with the skills to address the legal and ethical responsibilities of business to protect and respect human rights in global supply chains and to remedy human rights infringements.


The difference between human rights in business and corporate social responsibility (CSR)

It's encouraging that business schools have started to incorporate more teaching on business ethics, CSR and sustainability into their curriculum, and we often assume that human rights will be covered under these topics. But human rights requires something different. Companies’ responsibilities in this area are addressed by a specific regulatory context, involving guiding principles, industrial standards and aspects which are enshrined in law.  The Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum, an international network for academics teaching business and human rights, has identified well over 100 universities globally that are teaching business and human rights already. What we don't know is the extent to which business schools, as opposed to schools of law, social policy or political science, are engaging in this teaching.  And it does seem as if most business schools are overlooking the area - for example few feature business and human rights in their MBA curriculum.


What do business graduates need to know about business and human rights?

Business activities impact human rights across almost all industries and a broad range of functions, including supply-chain management, procurement, risk management, human resources management, finance and reporting.  A responsible manager is required to know what human rights are, how they might identify human rights issues, how they might respond to these issues and how to communicate about them both internally and externally.

In an open letter, a UN PRME (Principles of Responsible Management Education) working group on business and human rights advises that in all sectors graduates are required to:

1) understand the relevance of international human rights standards for business

2) be familiar with the Principles of the UN Global Compact as detailed in the UN’s “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework for Business and Human Rights (2008) and elaborated in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011) and,

3) have been exposed to best practices for managing the human rights impacts of business.


Business and human rights

Issues of business and human rights have not been overlooked by the United Nations (UN) where at end of November scholars, practitioners, state representatives, NGOs, ratings-agencies, multi-stakeholder initiatives, charities and others met for the 7th UN Business and Human Rights Forum.  The Forum has been meeting annually in Geneva and growing in size each year as human rights impacts are increasingly recognised within mainstream business.  The 2018 event involved 2,800 participants where, notably, a third of delegates came directly from business, evidencing a mounting concern coming from the sector. As businesses begin to recognise the need for an informed and explicit organisational approach to business and human rights, there is a demand for corresponding skills from the new graduates they recruit.


Advancing business and human rights education in business schools

With this in mind, the 2nd meeting of a network of international business school scholars aims to advance human rights in business education.  The event in Geneva was co-organised by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, the Business & Human Rights Catalyst at Alliance Manchester Business School, and the Geneva School of Economics and Management . Endorsed by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the business school accreditation agencies AACSB and EFMD  the meeting was entitled “Incorporating Human Rights into Business Education: The Way Forward”.

The aim of the meeting was to create a toolkit for advancing business and human rights education at business schools, building on materials already shared and developed by network members such as the Teaching Business and Human Rights Handbook.  Working across three themes of teaching, research and institutionalisation, the network discussed further ideas to advance business and human rights education.

A set of questions emerged from discussions:

  • What are the barriers and enablers for business schools and what might the levers for change be in different contexts?
  • What role can accreditation and professional certification bodies play?
  • How might business schools form joint or multidisciplinary projects on business and human rights?
  • How do we develop high quality research outlets for our professors to develop this knowledge?
  • How do we overcome students’ resistance to work with complex issues, with no rehearsable ‘neat’ solutions?
  • How can we evidence the employability benefit of these skills?
  • How can we develop contextual intersections where national contexts overlap in some regards and diverge in others?

These questions are not easy ones, and meeting delegates identified the crucial role that business school leaders must play in progressing business and human rights education in their institutions. Progress is being made - in developing the toolkit and providing a means for peer support, the network is establishing a way forward for academics who are drawn to this topic and would like to develop their own research and teaching.  What we have now is a great opportunity for business schools to show leadership as they reassert the importance and relevance of management education in addressing society’s future challenges.

Header image by University of Essex under licence CC BY 2.0

Posted in: Business and society, Education, Human rights


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