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Embedding Rights Compatible Grievance Processes for External Stakeholders Within Business Culture

This resource summarizes key considerations for companies when creating an Integrated Conflict Management system to manage disputes with external stakeholders.

August 2009 | John F. Sherman III; Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School | Pages: 27

The summary is excerpted from the resource.


Prof. John Ruggie, the [former] Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights (SRSG) has noted that companies must implement effective grievance mechanisms or processes that are rights-compatible in order to meet their responsibility to respect human rights. This gives rise to some practical questions: Will the corporate culture accept or reject the process? Where does it fit in the context of their use of other non-judicial dispute resolution processes? What can be learned from those processes? Can those lessons be applied to grievance processes for disputes with external stakeholders? Traditionally, companies have largely left the mechanics of dispute resolution in the hands of lawyers, many of whom have a natural bias in favor of litigation, which only they are licensed to practice. Nevertheless, business use of non-judicial or alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques has grown rapidly in recent decades, and is the preferred alternative of the legal departments of many of the best-run companies. In addition, starting in the 1990s, a number of organizations developed integrated conflict management (ICM) programs to resolve disputes with their employees.

Although the ICM model was developed for disputes with internal stakeholders, it provides an excellent source of learning for disputes with external stakeholders, not least because it reinforces core human rights values, such as respect and empowerment. An effective grievance process requires strong senior management commitment, systemic design, the right organizational alignment and integration, incentives, communication, training, monitoring and tracking. These are key features of the ICM program model, which already address workplace disputes that raise human rights issues. 

Comparing the ICM model with a recent study by the Center for Social Responsibility in Mining of community grievance handling processes suggests that with modification, the employee-focused ICM model could provide a strong platform for the development of an external stakeholder grievance mechanism. Those changes would require identifying the affected external stakeholders and working with them to develop a framework for the resolution of grievances based on mutual respect and trust. The grievance process should be integrated into the company with appropriate organizational alignment and incentives, with the recognition that community relations functions, which tend to have superior knowledge of community issues compared to legal and PR functions, need more clout with which to resolve disputes. Last, the company needs to understand the cause of the dispute, rather than just patching up immediate problems so that it can “move on.” This requires sharing information and moving away from a reflexive bias towards confidentiality that tends to occur when disputes are handled by the legal department.

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