When an eight-storey building collapsed in Bangladesh in April, killing more than 1,100 garment workers, the spotlight turned on western retailers and their attitudes to human rights. And rightly so, believes Michael Posner, the newly appointed professor of business and society at NYU’s Stern School of Business in New York, who is launching the first centre for human rights at a business school.
A lawyer by training, he served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013 and has since 1978 worked for Human Rights First, a New York-based human rights organisation.
Why teach human rights in a business school?
“I’m in a business school because I believe business is a force for good and smart businesses are looking at these issues.”
Efficient companies, he says, “don’t want [their] pyjamas or T-shirts found in the next building that collapses. My premise is how do you educate students, who will be the next business leaders, that rights will be part of the job. How do you prepare them to do what the best companies are doing? It’s about integrating it into the way we think. It belongs in business school.”
Would the impact not be higher in a law school?
That used to be the case, but no longer, he says. “One of the things I have seen over the past 25 years is that it used to be about governments’ relationships with individuals.”
Now two things have changed: governments are not as powerful as they used to be; and about half the world’s top economies by gross domestic product are companies. “We have an ambassador to Benin, why don’t we have an ambassador to Walmart?”
How will the centre operate?
For Prof Posner the centre will be as much a meeting place as it will a research centre.
“You need Walmart, H&M, the unions, the British government, the US government, all at the table … I think we can be a catalyst for the discussion.”
Companies are looking for measurable standards and clear metrics, he says, and the Stern centre can enable this. “We have neither the capacity nor the standing to create the metrics, but we can be a catalyst. There will always be rogue companies … but] you have to have a critical mass with a shared sense of what the standards should be.”
And what are the challenges?
“How do companies get over the aversion to work collectively with their competitors, because no companies can do this on their own? How do they work with local communities?”
And there will be hard facts to confront, such as the possible need for more manufacturing to return to the US and Europe. “The reality is there has been an artificially low cost to companies operating in a global economy,” says Prof Posner.
How will success be measured?
Prof Posner has three items on his agenda: to develop a group of well-educated business leaders who respect human rights; to advance the research agenda with rigorous analysis; and to convene the companies and individuals who decide strategy.
He is also keen on public education and believes this can help change the way businesses operate. “Environmental consciousness has made it almost impossible for consumer companies to ignore things like recycling,” he says.
There will be other items on the agenda. “One thing I am confident we are going to look at is the extent to which there is discrimination against women in business,” he says.
“There is undoubtedly some form of discrimination which is a human rights issue. I am not ready to figure out how to do that yet, but I think it is a discussion.”