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Human Rights and Human Wrongs

From an HR perspective, any discussion of human rights typically revolves around discrimination and the prevention of discriminatory practices in hiring, managing or disciplining workers. Specifics about what constitutes discrimination, and who is protected against it, vary from one jurisdiction to another. In some ways, the U.S. sets a high standard for protecting human rights in the workplace, and yet it’s evident that:

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“The concept of workers’ rights as human rights has only recently begun to influence the formation and implementation of labor policy in the United States. In the workplace, the growing human rights movement challenges long-held beliefs and practices in labor relations.”[1]

In an interview published in the Regional Labor Review, Lewis Maltby[2] addresses the challenge of protecting human rights in the workplace when employers can move from state to state, selecting the least restrictive jurisdiction. Although the creation of national laws governing workplace human rights shows movement in the right direction, he makes the following statement about the added challenges of workforce globalization:

“When companies can hopscotch around the world in the blink of an eye, national laws aren’t very effective, and it progressively does less and less good to have national laws. We [also] need international laws that protect fundamental human rights on the job.”

In his most recent book, Can They Do That? Maltby shares “dozens of stories of employees who have been fired or harassed unfairly-but legally” and alludes to hundreds of similar incidents he has witnessed over the past two decades. Many of these incidents describe incidents of overt discrimination, abuse of power and chronic bullying.

Bullying in the workplace is another reality that employers are failing to address. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), “bullying is four times more common than either sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job. The primary reason bullying occurs so frequently in workplaces is that bullying is not yet illegal…to date, no U.S. state has passed an anti-bullying law for the workplace.”

While federal regulators and large corporations talk a good talk, the fact remains that workers have very few rights in the U.S.  Unless explicitly conferred upon employees by law or by contract, all rights reside with the employer. Moreover, when the U.S. Supreme Court is faced with a situation where a federal law pits the rights of individual employees against those of their employers, the rights of corporations often prevail.

In the highly regulated environment of HR, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

When faced with a challenge, we get caught up in legalities and typically ask “Did we break the law?” or “Are we within our rights?” Sometimes policies are developed locally to keep the company “just onside” in each jurisdiction, without surrendering any more control than is absolutely necessary. The questions then become “Did we break the law here?” or “Are we within our rights here?”

Maybe it’s time we accept that human rights are less about legislation and more about respect and safety. All people, wherever they live, deserve to be respected for who they are and to feel safe, physically, mentally and emotionally, in their place of work. Perhaps the only questions we need to ask when faced with a human rights challenge are “Did we, intentionally or otherwise, perpetrate a human wrong?” And, if so, “How can we fix it?”


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[1] James A Gross. The Human Rights Movement at U.S. Workplaces: Challenges and Changes

[2] Workers’ rights advocate, author and former President of the National Workrights Institute, Inc.

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