For those of us in management today, it is clear our duties of care are expanding. We are accountable to address challenges that pose existential threats to not only our businesses but also the environments in which we operate. The economics of our crowded planet makes us weigh and address issues of climate and ecosystems, ESG, famine, water, poverty, populations, conflict and power which can influence the sustainability of our businesses.

Of these, a fast-broadening topic in the last year is the focus on social issues – the S in ESG — including human rights and human capital management.

Human Capital Management

Last fall, the SEC announced new human capital management disclosure rules. Companies must now expand their disclosure about human capital management, with a principles-based approach. Since the rules are not prescriptive, companies have flexibility in how they shape their disclosure. This latitude will likely pose the same difficulties people had in the early days of Sarbanes-Oxley reporting. We will struggle with how to determine what to include and what level of details should be in the filing.

Income inequality is under a hot light as well. Shareholders understand companies need to incentivize and recruit the right people to drive long-term value. Yet, the author of How Boards Work, Dambisa Moyo, cites that CEO pay in the US has grown 940% in real terms since 1978, while the pay of a typical worker has grown by 12%. Per the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment, income inequality potentially “negatively impact institutional investors’ portfolios as a whole and damages output, reduces growth and contributes to populism and protectionism.

The backing of larger index managers like BlackRock, State Street Global Advisors and Vangaurd are raising the support for social proposals. In the Q1 2021 Investment Stewardship Report, BlackRock states it supported 75% of shareholder-led social and environmental proposals. The MSCI analysts report a growing emphasis on social inequality. It notes: “COVID-19 has put its thumb on the top 1% side of the wealth scale, undoing decades of progress toward greater equality. Engaging with individual companies might not be enough to move the needle back. In 2021, we see investors taking steps toward more creative, systemic approaches, with those in the vanguard willing to risk a few failures in pursuit of solutions.”

Moreover, social bond issuances have grown in 2020, jumping from 4% in 2019 to 16% in 2020. Many focus on mitigating the negative impacts of the pandemic.

Human Rights

In Japan, the Financial Service Agency and Tokyo Stock Exchange have set a new standard related to human rights. The financial regulators are revising the corporate governance code this month to include a provision requiring listed companies to “respect human rights,” as part of the section addressing sustainability.

The move for this comes from pressure on Japanese companies to respond to China’s allegations of human rights abuse against the Uyghur Muslim minority in its western Xinjiang region. In January 2021, the US Customs authorities at the Port of Los Angeles suspended the import of Uniqlo men’s shirts due to suspicions they violated a U.S. import ban on items manufactured using forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The suspicion is that cotton produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a group under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party, has been used as raw material for Uniqlo products. The U.S. government banned the import of cotton products having any connection with this group at the end of 2020.

Since western governments, such as the US, have imposed sanctions on China regarding allegations of forced labor, any such violations by companies are under the hot lights of scrutiny by investors.

The intent of the new governance code is to have executives consider human rights as a significant management issue to proactively address. The code revision aims to promote board independence, gender diversity, an increased focus on sustainability and ES, and measures to address conflicts of interest. Listed companies will be required to explain any non-compliance with the code’s provisions. Authorities will be pushing companies to act voluntarily to root out potential forced labor and human trafficking abuses in their supply chains. The change is said to be aimed at helping Japanese corporations to get out in front of risks related to consumer boycotts and difficulties raising capital overseas.

HR Leaders: Take the Baton

These regulatory changes are a wake-up call for HR leaders to drive the dialog in their businesses to address the accountabilities. Take the lead and bring your executive team together to shape the philosophy and strategies for the future.

  • How do you define your human capital management plan and processes?
  • What changes should be considered?
  • What does an analysis of your compensation model demonstrate related to income equality?
  • What D&I programs are in play (or should be)?
  • What metrics do you need to establish meaningful monitoring of results?
  • Where do you stand on social programs that best support your community, industry and make an impact?
  • How should you review and uphold policies and practices that ensure respect for human rights for all your employees?
  • What training is needed to prepare managers for their roles in upholding the “S” in your business?

This focus on the human dimension means more work for us as leaders. It is well worth the stretch, though, as it has great potential on so many levels.

If you need guidance on guidelines, facilitation, or changes to consider, feel free to call. We’re here!


IPE, Rising Tide of Corporate Governance Liam Kennedy
The Japan Times Business/Economy Japan’s Regulators Raise Bar on Human Rights

Dr. Donna Hamlin leads the CHROs2GO practice in the 2GO Advisory Group. We work with clients to improve human and organizational performance. Reach out to learn how we can support you!