While the court of public opinion can be a powerful tool to get companies to avoid complicity in human rights abuses, new research suggests that in certain situations this mechanism may not be sufficient to target incentives effectively. In particular, the authors found that the American public is less likely to view companies negatively when they are involved in certain types of abuse or when they are more distantly connected to the perpetrators, meaning that in certain situations they may not lead companies to international guidelines retain. While companies should certainly pay attention to the public, the authors argue that they cannot rely solely on public opinion in their decision-making. Finally, advocating for human rights can sometimes come with a reputational benefit or financial rewards—but that’s not always the case. It is the responsibility of managers to do the right thing in every case.
Despite the well-known moral and practical shortcomings of relying on a “business case” to justify doing the right thing, many companies continue to pretend that all business decisions must be driven by profits rather than ethical concerns. In particular, some leaders have argued that there is a reputational (and therefore financial) cost to public opinion in working with governments or business partners who may have committed human rights abuses. These financial motivations are sometimes seen implicitly as substitutes for other mechanisms – such as legal requirements – to ensure that business respects human rights.
This argument is based on the idea that customers and other stakeholders will punish companies involved in human rights scandals, and companies therefore have a natural incentive to either persuade their partners not to commit violations and repair harm suffered, or to acquiesce or avoiding ending relationships with partners who commit abuse. And that may sound plausible – but our recent research suggests that the court of public opinion in protecting human rights is not always an effective mechanism to align decision-making with legal and ethical standards.
To examine how the public views different types of involvement in human rights abuses, we asked 2,420 American adults to respond to a range of hypothetical situations, yielding more than 12,000 responses in total (although American views are not necessarily representative of global sentiment, of course). this analysis nevertheless provides a substantial insight into one of the largest markets in the world). All of the scenarios we used would be considered unacceptable under the United Nations’ widely accepted Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and yet we found that 40% of the time our study participants felt the company was not involved human rights violation. What leads to this significant discrepancy between the perception that a company is involved in human rights abuses and the actual behavior of that company?
We designed the hypothetical scenarios to include a number of different contextual factors that could affect public perception, including the type of relationship the company has with the perpetrator, the type of human rights abuses involved, whether the company has conducted due diligence , the size of the company and industry, and whether the local community condemns the activity. By examining how these factors affected participants’ responses, we were able to examine how the court of public opinion works—and where it might fall short.
People are more responsive when companies have closer ties to offenders.
First, our participants were much less likely to feel that a company was involved in a violation if its relationship with the company that committed the violation seemed somewhat distant. For example, a company was 7 percentage points less likely to be involved in a human rights abuse when the perpetrator was a supplier than when it was a subsidiary.
This effect was even more pronounced when the perpetrator was a government agency. Our participants were 10 percentage points less likely that a company did something wrong when government forces abused human rights in ways that benefited the company, such as violently suppressing protests, than when a company’s subsidiary did similar things would have committed crimes – and it did. A company is 19 percentage points less likely to be complicit in human rights abuses if it remains silent while unrelated human rights abuses have been committed in a country where it operates.
People are more forgiving when companies have done due diligence.
Next, we found that people were more likely to respond positively when a company had attempted to conduct due diligence — that is, conduct impact assessments, take actions to address negative impacts, and monitor the effectiveness of those actions — regardless of whether they ultimately did so succeeded in preventing abuse. When a company identified a potential abuse and tried to prevent it, people were 15 percentage points less likely to consider the company involved in a human rights abuse than when the company did not even try to identify potential abuses ( despite the abuse). still occurs in both cases).
However, a company that had identified risks but failed to act on the information was 7 percentage points more likely to have been involved in a breach than if it had never sought the information. In other words, proactive efforts to identify human rights risks improve public perception, but only if the company makes efforts to address the abuses that are uncovered.
People react differently to different types of human rights violations.
We’ve also found that the American public is more sensitive to certain types of abuse. Our participants were most likely to see companies associated with child labor as involved in human rights abuses, while associations with partners who did not pay a living wage, polluted a community’s land, or engaged in discrimination were less likely to be viewed as engaging in a violation . Interestingly, the violent repression of protesters was one of the least likely assaults to create the appearance of complicity in a human rights abuse (despite clearly violating citizens’ basic civil and political rights), and the abuse for which participants were most lenient , was the destruction of a sacred site (again, although this is a clear violation of cultural and indigenous rights).
Company size and industry have minimal impact on people’s perceptions.
While one might expect the public to hold larger companies to a higher standard, we found that company size had minimal impact on participants’ reactions: a large conglomerate and a small start-up were judged only slightly differently, despite being over have drastically different resources and structures. Likewise, no distinction was made at all between companies in sectors that have a better or worse reputation for protecting human rights. For example, despite the industries’ dramatically different human rights records, renewable energy companies have been assessed as being similarly involved in abuses as oil exploration companies.
People hold companies to their own standards – not local ones.
Finally, our participants were not particularly sensitive to local views about what constitutes acceptable behavior. For example, when participants were told that local communities thought it was okay for companies to employ children in certain situations, their judgments changed only slightly.
The court of public opinion relies more on individual arguments than reference to the law.
After reading and responding to the hypothetical situations, we asked our participants to explain their reasoning. Their responses indicated that people are much more likely to rely on their own moral compass or their own definitions of human rights than on external references when determining what constitutes a human rights violation. In fact, only 6% of the time, people have mentioned legal frameworks such as that of the United Nations or even the idea of human rights laws, relying instead on their individual feelings and arguments. And importantly, while people’s own judgments have often been consistent with widely held definitions of human rights, this has not always been the case.
For example, one interviewee judged a company involved in the contamination of a community’s land as not involved in a human rights abuse because they felt the incident “did not cross important boundaries.” Similarly, another stated that “the destruction of a sacred site does not affect human rights,” even though it clearly goes against established standards for cultural and indigenous rights. And even opinions based on legal standards were often not formulated as such. As one participant stated, “I find it morally reprehensible that companies use any form of child labor,” illustrating the role of individual moral positions in shaping people’s opinions about corporate involvement in human rights abuses.
Of course, there is certainly room for individual reflection. Especially in an area as complex as human rights, where experts themselves continue to debate legal guidelines, it’s a good idea to consider public opinion alongside established frameworks. In fact, our research shows that public opinion can sometimes be very demanding of companies when it comes to human rights. However, it is also important to remember that public opinion is not a substitute for internationally accepted standards – and the court of public opinion can be an inconsistent enforcer of human rights. In particular, the American public is less likely to judge companies negatively if they are involved in certain types of abuse or if they have more distant ties to perpetrators, meaning that in certain situations they may not push companies to comply with international guidelines.
As such, leaders must carefully consider the factors that can affect how their organizations are judged in the court of public opinion. While they should definitely pay attention to the public, they cannot rely solely on public opinion in their decision-making. Finally, advocating for human rights can sometimes come with a reputational benefit or financial rewards—but that’s not always the case. It is the responsibility of managers to do the right thing in every case.