Where are you from, and why there?
I grew up and went to public school in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, and have lived most of my life near Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. I graduated from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
I went on to a long career of practicing law in a Boston law firm, and then in the legal department of what ultimately became a multinational energy company. Toward the end of my tenure with the company, I became deeply involved in its collaboration with other multinationals to promote business respect for human rights and to develop skills and tools to enable businesses to do so.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
Steering corporate cultures toward greater alignment with the business responsibility to respect human rights.
Simply put, corporate culture is the way things are done in an organization. It consists of a company’s authentic values and norms, which are not aspirational, but actual, and predictive of a company’s human rights performance. They are the canary in the corporate coalmine. Two examples from the energy industry are illustrative and applicable to the private sector more broadly.
In one case, an executive of the operating company of a nuclear power plant testified that, to save money, the company had shifted its safety goal downwards, from a level that exceeded legal requirements to basic compliance with nuclear plant safety regulations. Aiming lower, however, scared the plant’s employees, who complained to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). (One whistleblower appeared on the cover of Time Magazine). Shortly thereafter, the NRC shut down the plant for several years to ensure that the company addressed the employees’ concerns. The cost to ratepayers was several hundred million dollars. This case made me realize that an overly legalistic corporate culture can be counterproductive. By aiming at legal compliance only, the company risks greater costs in the long run.
In a second case, our company had a terrible workplace accident in which two of our employees were severely injured and one died. This resulted in a complete overhaul of the company’s safety program. Among other things, the overhaul emphasized the need to promote an open, speak-up culture that encourages employees and managers to report bad news and share experiences, rather than be silent out of fear of making admissions that might hurt the company in litigation.
How did you get involved?
Based on my involvement in safety-related litigation in my prior career as a corporate lawyer, I understood the foundational role of corporate culture in preventing accidents. I also learned that over-emphasis on legal compliance designed to protect a company from liability can inhibit development of such a culture. The same applies to human rights.
It is through this work that I ultimately met Prof. John Ruggie, then the Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Business and Human Rights, and author of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. After I retired from my company as deputy general counsel in 2008, Prof. Ruggie asked me to join his UN mandate team, where I helped him to shape and draft the Guiding Principles. Since 2011, I have been General Counsel and Senior Fellow of Shift, which has become the recognized center of expertise on implementation of the Guiding Principles. Chaired by Prof. Ruggie, Shift is an independent nonprofit headquartered in New York City.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
Identifying the values and norms that underlie a rights-respecting culture. As part of its signature Valuing Respect Project, Shift asked me to consolidate my thinking on this. Based on my prior legal work, my work in business and human rights, an extensive review of the literature, and interviews with academic, business, and civil society experts in many fields, we identified the following four values and norms:
- Respect for the dignity of all individuals and empathy with them to motivate the organization to know and care about its involvement in human rights harm to people, including to remote individuals and communities, whom a company might otherwise ignore as part of its responsibility;
- Openness and learning to motivate the organization to seek out human rights issues and learn from its mistakes, including impacts on remote stakeholders; and
- Individual empowerment and responsibility to encourage employees to raise and address human rights issues; and
- Coherence to ensure that the organization respects human rights, notwithstanding inevitable tensions with other business goals.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
Company human rights professionals. It takes guts to work effectively as human rights professional in a company where company’s culture does not embody these values and norms. The job includes proactively searching for human rights problems that the company is not aware of, to enable senior management to address them. Often this involves discovering impacts on unexpected categories of stakeholders in remote tiers of the company’s value chain. Without respect for the dignity of all individuals and empathy with them, a company will feel little responsibility for remote stakeholders. Without an open culture, when bad news surfaces companies will tend to shoot the messenger who brings bad news.
At the same time, the company human rights professional should try to work within the budgetary and business realities and constraints of the company’s strategic goals and help management design strategies and tactics to respect human rights that are sustainable for the business in the mid-to-long term. Where this is impossible, and the company’s business model makes involvement in human rights harm highly likely, the company human rights professional must be prepared to stand his or her ground.
What drives you?
I try to act in accordance with the four norms and values of a human rights respecting culture: empathy, openness and learning, individual empowerment and responsibility, and coherence. I may not always live up to each of these, but they resonate with me.
What do you want your career to stand for?
The proposition that, given the right opportunity, one can emerge from the narrow corporate and legal worlds with the ability, tools, and desire to make a positive difference for global society by reducing business involvement in human rights abuse.