Bob Corcoran – Business Voice

Bob Corcoran – Vice-President, Corporate Citizenship, GE and President of the GE Foundation

    • Assessing existing policies and process - Policy commitment – Engaging leaders – The language of “human rights” 

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The focus for GE on Human Rights, or at least beginning to talk about a collective of policies, practices and procedures relating to human rights, began in about 2003. Prior to that we had practices and policies around treatment of people, fair employment practices, the things that we audited for on our supplier audits, our values inside the company etc. When you put them all together, we were comfortable that we had a good set of values and a good set of procedures that helped us to ensure we did no harm – that we did the right things.

A couple of years later in a discussion with some stakeholders a human rights NGO advocate said “you don’t have a policy on human rights”. He was correct. So we went with a design team and talked internally with a number of senior sponsors. We ran two or three sessions inviting in a dozen or so human rights-oriented organisations for dialogue sessions that helped us with development. It’s been a good success for us. It was difficult to develop since business is naturally reluctant to talk about human rights because negative connotations. If you can get through that, you realised it’s a much broader, much more enabling concept than is generally understood by business. We’ve had a Statement of Principles on Human Rights in place since 2006 and it’s been very helpful to us as we’ve gone about the business of doing business and doing it properly.

The difficulty of looking at the concept of human rights as a business person, especially for the first time, is that you can’t help but be frightened of it. You always hear human rights in the media and in the general course of societal discussion involving a grievance or something egregious that has taken place – the denial of fundamental rights to liberty – the denial of the fundamental right to life – the denial freedom of movement within a country or to practice one’s religion etc. So the connotation to and interpretation by many business leaders is “We don’t say yes or no to religion, and we don’t oversee voting for representation within the state. We don’t ban people from moving inside a country. If we don’t do any of that, we don’t have a role in human rights”. Business can be nervous to look into the eyes of human rights, confront the demons they have in their head about what society thinks of human rights, and move forward.

To focus on leading human rights inside of a company as large as GE can be daunting because the employment of the company is over 300,000 people – more than half are scattered outside the US – with over 100 countries of operation and 100s of business facilities. First and foremost, as we reviewed discussed and determined how we would proceed with human rights and the development of principles around human rights, it was clear from the very beginning we would fail if we created something separate from our normal business processes. If the control and enforcement mechanism involved a separate procedure and a separate group of people it would fail because what is important in any business is in its core processes of how work gets done.

The Leadership Team was clearly focused on ensuring that the human rights mechanisms were within the core operating mechanisms of the company, and not just a special office on human rights that sat in isolation with no real connection with the daily work and strategy of business. This was helpful, especially within our legal and public policy community as well as our HR community, but it also extended into environmental, health and safety, and our sourcing and outsourcing group who oversee vendors and suppliers. At the top level it is fairly well integrated because at the very start the fundamental belief, as it is in all of GE, was that unless it was embedded within core business processes, it won’t become a part of the way we work

Extract revised for written version from audio file recorded in 2008.