Shift is the leading center of expertise on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. As a mission-driven organization, Shift works with companies, governments and other agents of change—around the globe—to help build a world where business gets done with respect for people’s dignity. Shift President and Co-Founder Caroline Rees talked with the Erb Institute about how companies can measure social performance, the mission of Shift and its most recent flagship project, Valuing Respect.

We know that measuring social performance and human rights impact is hard for companies. Where do we begin?

Businesses—like most organizations—thrive on metrics and indicators. They use them all the time: to measure sales, marketing campaigns, employee performance, you name it. But when it comes to valuing the impacts that their actions and decisions have on people’s dignity, they often hit a wall. They simply do not know how to express the value of concepts that are largely qualitative and subjective. And they often miss the fact that qualitative information has great value if it is read correctly. For years, the easy answer has been to measure activities and their immediate outputs: the number of audits performed in their supply chains, the amount of dollars destined to social responsibility, the hours of training sessions delivered, or numbers of contracts with human rights clauses. But that doesn’t really tell us the most critical thing: Are companies truly making a difference?
If you are an investor, how can you tell what companies to have in your socially responsible portfolio? If you are an advocate, how do you know whether a business is taking its responsibility seriously and implementing actions that are actually incentivizing change?
The question of “Where do we begin?” is really what our latest flagship project, Valuing Respect, is all about.

Can you tell us more about Valuing Respect?

At its core, Valuing Respect is a collaborative platform to ask the question collectively of us all: How do we find more useful, more insightful and more valuable ways of understanding what is working? Unless we do that, resources will continue to be funneled into initiatives that don’t make a difference and insufficient resources put into initiatives that do. Valuing Respect is about bringing together bodies of research, experience, insight and practice to address this question of how to do a better job of evaluating business respect for human rights.

Why has the Valuing Respect project focused on convening multi-stakeholder regional workshops?

It’s foundational to our experience of what delivers meaningful outcomes. On the one hand, you have solid and robust research and inquiry, and on the other hand, you have broad and inclusive consultations. At Shift, we’ve never pretended to have all the answers. I don’t think anyone ever will. But we love inviting different perspectives to the table and asking challenging questions to gain the critical insights that we need, whether it be from civil society organizations, regulatory bodies, business, the investor community or academia. It’s by bringing these voices together that you get the truly catalytic moments. Cross-regional, cross-disciplinary and cross-stakeholder consultation is central to crafting a higher-quality process.

This past May, we shared the causal pathway way of thinking at a Valuing Respect consultation in New York City. This framework for evaluation seemed to resonate strongly both with participants there and at subsequent consultations in London, Singapore and Johannesburg. It helps people break down the theory of change behind any intervention, from its inputs and activities to outputs, changes in behavior, and outcomes for people; to examine the assumptions behind that theory and work out from there what indicators will best show whether their efforts are working. We also heard interest at these consultations in exploring what makes up a rights-respecting corporate culture and system of governance, and in the possibility of bringing stakeholder voices more squarely into the evaluation of business performance. Going forward, we will probably put a greater weight of resources into exploring these ideas.

What are some of the issues you’re digging into?

We find the aforementioned question of stakeholder voice interesting: How do you get access to the perspectives of people who are themselves impacted by business, and what are the roles technology does and could play in enabling that? These perspectives would be extremely valuable in evaluating what’s working. There is a lot of interesting innovation happening in this field—for example, using mobile apps to help communities capture evidence of impacts from business, or as a means for workers to provide feedback on their workplace; capturing ”micro-narratives” from women workers in agriculture; and co-crafting indicators of success with communities, from which the data flows can then be translated into trend lines of progress for investors. We are exploring these and other developments, looking at the different methodologies, their strengths and weaknesses, and their transferability across sectors and contexts.

Another piece we’re looking at are the “red flags” or “green flags” in business models and strategies. Certain strategic decisions carry inherent human rights risks, such as: “Let us move to online marketing and high-speed delivery services.” Or: “Let’s move to a highly outsourced labor force.” How do we make it easier to spot where those inherent risks lie in business models and strategies? If a company’s leadership chooses to go that route, what does it need to do to consider and mitigate those risks?

If we already have the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, why do we need Shift?

For many, the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) were the culmination of a decades-long push to create a global standard that would set out clearly the expectations of all companies when it comes to respecting people’s human rights. For those of us at Shift who were part of the team that helped develop the Guiding Principles, it was a great success, but only the beginning. Yes, the three pillars of the UNGPs were in place, but there was—and continues to be—a need to ensure they become the basis of a new way of doing business: to reshape organizations, move markets and transform mindsets; to go from paper to practice, and from practice to change in people’s lives.For the past seven years, Shift has been working hand-in-hand with governments, Fortune 500 companies, civil society organizations, global investors and many other agents of change to do precisely that: to materialize the vision that the UNGPs put forward.

Just recently, our team members have been in Peru working with mining companies to improve the effectiveness of grievance mechanisms; in Switzerland, advising one of the world’s largest sporting organizations; in Singapore, conducting in-depth consultations on how to evaluate corporate respect for human rights; and in New York, presenting our latest publication on how respect for human rights contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

So, yes, the UNGPs are there. But we need to keep working every day, everywhere, to bring about the change that the principles promised; to ensure that when it comes to how business gets done, people’s dignity is protected by governments and respected by companies.