Human rights at work – a corporate headache or good business sense?
Most of us probably think of extremes when we consider human rights at work. Those extremes often involve exploitation, ridiculous hours, poor conditions and peanuts for pay. Sadly, we know this happens; however, human rights at work can be much less visible.
Businesses have a huge impact on the human rights of their staff, customers and anyone else affected by their operations. This isn’t just one-sided: there are solid business benefits, from attracting talented people and commercial opportunities to maintaining a good reputation. But are UK companies and the people they employ upholding these rights?
On 10 December we observed Human Rights Day, an event that marks the forging of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations (UN). Recognised as the world’s most translated document, it declares that each person on this planet should be treated with dignity and fairness, regardless of gender, sex, age, race or otherwise.
Looking at human rights at work from the perspective of race, Caspian Media’s Real Business spoke to three black British entrepreneurs. Each reflected on the part their heritage has played in their business journeys.
Gender and race: in the boardroom
As a professional publicist and strategist, Brenda Gabriel is used to high-level interaction. However, her colleagues regularly disregarded her human rights at work. This left her unsure whether she was treated differently for being a woman, black or both.
“There were many grey incidents which took place during my career. There were meetings where I would put forward a point and the room would remain silent until a male white manager would repeat the same thing as if it was a new idea. And the room would break into a chorus of agreement on whatever had just been proposed.
“There were other incidents that took place, which left me wondering if racism did play an issue, but it could have just as easily been sexism.”
Solider to CEO: the determination to excel
Cyber security expert and CensorNet CEO, Ed Macnair, reflected on how an awareness of his disadvantaged position moulded his actions from an early age.
“Before transitioning to tech, my background was military in the armed forces. I remember in the early stages of my military career I had a black sergeant who told me once that, as a young black man, I’d have to be twice as good as everybody else in order to be as successful.
“That is something that has always stuck with me, in both my personal life and my business life. I guess I’d argue that even though I’ve never viewed my heritage as a factor affecting my career development, it has shaped my attitude and given me resilience and determination; the two traits which I owe many of my achievements to.”
Creative wilderness: paving the way
As creative director and co-founder of the Superimpose Studio, Ollie Olanipekun has encountered questionable comments from others in his industry.
“Working with international clients that have key markets to satisfy I’ve heard some very suspect things said when it comes to casting.
“[There were] a lot of awkward conversations but when I looked around for support there were no other black faces in the office, and these experiences get glossed over. It can be lonely as a person of colour in the creative industry, but it’s our duty to pave the way for others.”
While Human Rights Day is pegged to a specific date, these entrepreneurial experiences are a clear reminder that human rights at work need to improve and be applied throughout the year. Business people are still being assessed on who they are rather than what they do. However, we have a collective role to play in corporate responsibility and the equal treatment of individuals in business.
As employers, fellow professionals, consumers and observers, we can all do our part and positively affect businesses by treating others fairly and with respect.
Want to explore more topics from the UK’s most read SME website? Visit Caspian Media’s Real Business for advice, guides, interviews and inspiring stories.
By Zen Terrelonge, Deputy Editor Real Business