Week of 27 July 2020
Companies should stop framing their responses to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as voluntary: they need to consider ways (1) to support workers participating in protests, (2) in which their own operations, products of services could be connected to racial discrimination and (3) to meaningfully inform their BLM advocacy, through engagement with affected stakeholders (Shift)
Shift released Black Lives Matter: Putting Human Rights at the Heart of Corporate Responses to provide guidance for companies on how they can fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights under the UN Guiding Principles in the context of protest movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other social justice movements.
Companies continue to struggle to develop a human rights-based response to BLM, with some facing criticism for “taking only superficial action” and others taking steps to more deeply examine “their own performance on diversity and looking at further ways in which their operations may be connected to systemic racism.” However, Shift underscores that “much of the discussion is still framed as if these responses are voluntary commitments, which business can choose to make or not. That needs to change.”
Shift identifies three ways in which business’ responsibility to respect human rights is connected to the BLM movement and other movements for social and economic justice, and offers guidance for companies to take meaningful action in line with their responsibility:
1. Connections to short-term risks to protestors’ safety and freedom of speech
- Ensure that their own workforce feels empowered to take part in peaceful protests without fear of reprisals or consequences in their professional lives. In particular, senior leadership and legal functions should drive this messaging from the top.
- Advocate for their employees’ rights if they are injured or detained while participating in peaceful protests. In addition, companies should ensure that job candidates are not barred from hiring due to criminal records from peaceful protests and that employees with vulnerable immigration status are protected in case they are detained.
- Advocate for protestors’ rights more broadly and speak up in support of “the wider need to end discriminatory police violence against Black communities, as well as against Indigenous and other communities.”
2. Connections between a company’s own operations and racial discrimination over the longer-term
- Identify how “their own products or services are or could be connected to the structural discrimination underlying the BLM movement.” For example, companies that supply police forces or otherwise have business relationships that could pose risk to protestors’ rights “should prioritize those relationships for heightened due diligence and a realistic assessment of the company’s leverage in engaging on these issues.”
- Assess whether their products, services or advertising dollars are contributing to hate speech and discrimination perpetuated via communications platforms. They should also identify whether their products or services are helping to “reinforce existing discrimination based on race against individuals and communities more widely in society,” such as lack of access to financial services or stereotypical portrayals of ethnic groups in marketing.
- Make public statements on racial and social equality that are backed up by “tangible actions over a longer time period that are more likely to result in change. Their approach should be grounded in and informed by engagement with affected stakeholders” such as employees, business partners and customers.
- Use individual and collective leverage with other companies “to support regulatory change to address the structural inequalities affecting Black individuals and communities,” for example by advocating for local policy reforms like those espoused by M4BL’s Vision for Black Lives.
3. Company involvement in broader advocacy on BLM policy goals
- Companies should engage with affected stakeholders as a means of understanding the particular challenges facing marginalized communities and forming the basis for action.
- Further, Shift points out that “if companies have not seriously engaged with their responsibilities under the first two dimensions above, simply engaging in public advocacy is likely to ring hollow.”
For transparency, I support Shift as a Senior Advisor in addition to my own consulting practice.