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Learn How Businesses Respect Human Rights

Learning Objectives:

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe how businesses can put the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) into practice.
  • Explain the basics of human rights due diligence (HRDD) and the benefits.
  • Identify how businesses respond to negative impacts on human rights.

How Businesses Put the UN Guiding Principles into Action

We know that the three-pillar framework for the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) establishes States’ and businesses’ responsibilities in protecting and respecting human rights and remedying negative human rights impacts. But how exactly can businesses put this framework into practice in their day-to-day activities? Let’s explore further. 

Policy Commitment

The first step businesses can take to demonstrate their respect for human rights is to share a policy statement highlighting this commitment. The drafting process for this statement is an opportunity for businesses to build a shared internal understanding of their responsibility and “go public” about their commitment by sharing the policy statement far and wide. This means the process is much more than simply creating a document and should:

  • Explain a business’s responsibility to respect human rights.
  • Set clear expectations, guidelines, and processes for policy implementation.
  • Address how workers, suppliers, and other business partners should adhere to the policy.
  • Become a “living” document—that evolves as business operations grow and change.

Corporate Culture Is Also Important 

Once a business has a clear policy in place, it's time to put it into action. Implementation begins by embedding the commitment to respect human rights into corporate culture. It must become an integral part of all business activities, including: 

  • Workplace training
  • Product design and development
  • Performance and accountability structures, such as key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Endorsement from senior management and board members

Along with these important actions, businesses also show respect for human rights through the human rights due diligence (HRDD) process. Let’s learn more about this process. 

How Businesses Implement Human Rights Due Diligence

HRDD is a key component of businesses’ responsibility to respect human rights, helping them focus on the human rights impact of their operations, supply chains, or other commercial relationships.

The UNGPs conceive HRDD as a risk management process that helps companies “identify, prevent, mitigate, and address negative human rights impacts” on people. In short, HRDD is a process for businesses to “know and show” their human rights responsibilities. HRDD mirrors existing business risk management systems; however, the focus of HRDD is the risk to people rather than the risk to the company itself. Companies can adjust the scale and complexity of their HRDD processes to factor in their company size, industry sector, or operation context.

The four stages of the human rights due diligence processSource credit: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


Similar to general risk management systems, the HRDD process involves four stages: 

  1. Assessing impacts. Businesses assess their human rights impacts by identifying and evaluating associated risks within their operations.
  2. Integrating and taking action. Businesses incorporate their findings from this assessment into their decision-making and business activities.
  3. Tracking performance. Businesses measure the effectiveness of these decisions and activities.
  4. Communicating. Businesses communicate these efforts to internal and external stakeholders regularly.

Now let’s see how each stage works in action, through one hypothetical example. 

  • Assessing impacts: A leading manufacturer of home goods conducts an analysis of the human rights impacts and risks of its operations, as well as those of its supply chain. Through this analysis, the business discovers that its raw materials have been unlawfully sourced in indigenous peoples’ traditional lands.
  • Integrating and taking action: The business incorporates community relations and community consent for its land use into its broader forest conservation policy, explicitly stipulating that it needs to obtain free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) from communities in and around its operations.
  • Tracking performance: The business develops and continues to update its standard operating procedure (SOP) for community engagement, using consultations with affected indigenous peoples to guide procedure updates.
  • Communicating: The business regularly shares updates with its stakeholders through its annual sustainability report and quarterly progress reports.

To learn more about the HRDD process, including other tools businesses have at their disposal to ensure they meet their HRDD responsibility, check out “Toolbox: Human Rights for Business & Organisations” in the Resources section. 

How Businesses Provide Access to Remedy

We learned in the previous unit that, under the “Access to Remedy” pillar, the UNGPs call upon States and businesses to provide effective recourse for those who experience negative human rights impacts. States are responsible for providing judicial remedies and other types of grievance mechanisms, such as ombudsman offices. In turn, there is an expectation that businesses provide grievance mechanisms so those who have experienced harm can file complaints directly at the operational level. 

Grievance mechanisms play a critical role in meeting the responsibility to respect. In addition to providing a remedy for those who experience negative human rights impacts, grievance mechanisms can help address issues early and identify patterns over time. It’s also important to note that because negative human rights impacts can occur both within a business and in the surrounding community, mechanisms need to be available both internally and externally.

For example, businesses can implement: 

  • An anonymous hotline where employees and, in some cases, the community, can report suspicious activity, such as fraud, corruption, and ethics issues, to appropriate human resources, legal, and compliance teams.
  • Internal complaints procedures for employees to report on staff interaction issues, such as harassment or intimidation, to teams like human resources or senior management.
  • A community complaint and feedback system, so community members that may be negatively affected by the companies’ operations may present their issues, seek measures to fix a problem, or be compensated.

How Businesses and Employees Advance the UNGPs

Now that we know more about the UNGP framework and the critical roles businesses play in respecting human rights, let's explore a final key question: What can individuals working within businesses do to advance the UNGPs in their workplaces? 

To begin, teams and individuals can familiarize themselves with the current human rights policy in the companies where they work. Understanding what rights a business has explicitly committed to prioritizing helps employees develop a sense of their company’s strengths and areas for improvement for respecting human rights. This also enables individuals to identify their own responsibilities within their respective functions in the company. 

Individual employees have the unique advantage of advocating from within their workplace to help companies advance the UNGPs and keep pace with evolving customer, community, and societal expectations to respect human rights. If there are gaps in respecting human rights, or if there are human rights issues that need to be addressed inside the company, such as race or gender bias or working conditions, employees can advocate for changes in corporate policies and processes. 

In the effort to make progress for human rights for all, every voice counts. Now that you know more about the UNGPs and the responsibilities of businesses and employees, you have an opportunity to consider how you will make your voice heard. 


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