Integrating Business into the Human Rights Dialogue

By Monika Johnson, MBA/MS ‘19

Today’s world politics call into question which institutions are most capable of and responsible for upholding individual social and political liberties. Is it business, nonprofits, government or a combination of the three? As business students and future business leaders, we have an unparalleled opportunity to make sure the institutions we lead have a positive impact.

In May, I had the opportunity (Thanks Erb Institute!) to attend a gathering of professors from universities around the world and human rights practitioners from some of the world’s largest companies.

Hosted by Columbia University’s Human Rights Institute, the “Promoting Innovation in Business and Human Rights Education” workshop highlighted best practices across universities. As a Ross MBA student, I was proud to report that many of my classmates at the University of Michigan are already stepping up to better integrate business into global human rights dialogue.

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, momentum behind the concept of inalienable rights has continued to build globally. In 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were established, reaffirming that human rights are inextricably connected to industries’ long-term economic success.

Governments and international organizations can set standards for human rights, but businesses and their MBA leadership often are responsible for implementing them. When people enjoy the right to education, freedom of opinion and expression, and positive working conditions, the companies they build can be more innovative and drive collective prosperity. Moreover, embedding respect for universal human rights into corporate culture promotes the business’s integrity.

After hearing from executives in top international corporations at the conference, I noticed several themes business students can leverage to get involved in this work. Below are my top four tips for exploring human rights issues at Ross and beyond:
1. Dive deep into your industry.
Explore the Top Ten Business and Human Rights Issues for 2017, as well as key issues in your field. To get started, check out the UN Global Compact’s Sustainable Development Goals industry matrices. The financial services guide, for example, highlights Calvert Investments’ efforts to “‘leverage our collective influence’ in addressing human rights and labor abuses in the DR Congo.” On the company level, use the Erb Institute’s Human Rights toolboxes to perform a comprehensive assessment and see where your organization ranks on the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark.
2. Take advantage of academic initiatives
Students and professors are focused on human rights across the University of Michigan. The Donia Human Rights Center offers frequent events and discussions, as does the Ford School and Law School. At Ross, Professor Ravi Anupindi is championing the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights. For the ultimate MBA experience in business and human rights, take Professor David Hess’ business law course on the topic.
Erb students presenting a Business and Human Rights workshop in India.
3. Keep asking questions
In a rapidly changing world, MBAs are learning to constantly reassess the landscape for economic opportunity; we must also do so for emerging trends in human rights. Companies working with big data are beginning to ask questions about how their work affects judgmental biases, privacy, and health. Recently, cross-sector artificial intelligence leaders adopted the Asiolmar AI Principles on ethics.

For me, attending the conference underscored the importance of integrating human rights into the business school experience, as well as the many opportunities at U-M to explore today’s most pressing issues.

Wherever you go after Ross, don’t forget to keep reassessing how the world is changing and what lever of influence you can use to make it a more just place for all.


Monika Johnson is a dual-degree student with the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Prior to Ross, Monika spent five years at the United Nations Foundation, where she built and directed a program that empowers young Americans to impact the UN’s work on human rights and other issues. This summer, she is interning in marketing at Land O’Lakes.