Handling and resolving human rights complaints about your business

Advice and Guidance

Which countries is it relevant to?

    • Great Britain

This guidance is for managers in medium to large companies in England, Scotland and Wales. It will be particularly relevant to those with responsibilities for human rights and social issues, as well as those working in human resources, customer and community relations. Smaller businesses can use this guide to develop procedures that reflect their size, context and nature of their operations.

Why is it important to resolve human rights complaints?

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is a global standard which outlines that business has a responsibility to respect human rights and to provide timely and effective remedy for any harm caused to people’s human rights. The guiding principles do not create any new international legal obligations on companies, but they can help companies to operate with respect for human rights and meet their legal responsibilities set out in domestic laws.

The Human Rights Act (1998) sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms that everyone in the UK is entitled to. It requires all public bodies or private organisations providing a public service, to respect and protect human rights.

Human rights harms might include:

  • discrimination against workers, unsafe working conditions, trafficking within the supply chain or workers being denied the right to join a trade union
  • customers having their privacy violated when personal data is used inappropriately
  • communities being harmed by pollution, accidents or product contamination

Many of these are covered by common law or statutory provisions binding on organisations, but organisations do not always have effective complaints procedures to allow them to resolve and remedy complaints.

To demonstrate respect for human rights, your business needs to identify and understand its salient, or most severe, human rights risks and address these risks. If it learns it has harmed the human rights of its workers, customers and people living in the communities affected by its operations, it must resolve these harms in a timely and effective way. Part of your company’s human rights due diligence is to ensure your company has effective processes to enable people to submit complaints about human rights issues and receive an effective remedy for any harms.

By putting effective complaints procedures in place you can:

  • identify and resolve human rights issues before they become a risk to your business and your reputation
  • provide a way to promptly identify and address the concerns of directly affected stakeholders before they escalate or lead to otherwise preventable  harm
  • avoid lengthy and potentially costly legal procedures
  • improve your compliance with industry standards and statutory codes on handling complaints and grievances
  • apply a formal and consistent approach to handling complaints, which is more likely to be fair and transparent
  • ensure staff are more likely to know how to act when a human rights issue arises; and stakeholders know how you will handle complaints
  • monitor complaints, identify any patterns and assess how well your complaints process is working
  • show you are committed to remedying any harm your company has caused to someone’s human rights.

What is a company required to do when someone’s human rights have been harmed?

If your company has caused harm to an individual’s human rights, or is at risk of doing so, it must stop or prevent the activity causing the harm.

If your company is contributing or linked to harming an individual’s human rights, it can use its influence to reduce risks to human rights occurring. For further information about using your business influence to reduce human rights risks, please see our business and human rights guidance for boards and accompanying table on identifying and preventing human rights risks for business (Word document)

Companies have a responsibility to put in place an effective procedure that can respond to human rights complaints from workers, customers and communities. An effective complaints procedure is as much about the process of receiving and responding to complaints as it is about the outcome.

Individuals whose rights may have been harmed by your business’ activities must be able to access your complaints process. You can usually adapt your existing procedure so that it identifies human rights impacts rather than create a separate procedure.

What type of remedy should there be?

Remedies can range from an apology and action to stop the problem from happening again to financial compensation or internal penalties. You should take into account what the people affected consider an effective remedy as well as what you think is appropriate.

Sometimes the state, most usually through a court, tribunal or Ombudsman, may determine the remedy. You should always comply with these state processes, even if not legally required to do so.

A principles-based approach

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights say that effective complaints handling should be:

  • Legitimate, in that it is fair and trustworthy
  • Accessible, in that it is known to all the stakeholders it is meant for, and that it provides adequate assistance to those who may face barriers to accessing the complaints procedure and process, for example due to language or disability
  • Predictable in terms of process and available outcomes
  • Equitable in terms of fair access to information, advice and expertise
  • Transparent by keeping those involved in a complaint informed about its progress, and by providing sufficient information about the process to build confidence in its effectiveness
  • Compatible with internationally recognised human rights such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organization’s core conventions
  • A source of continuous learning for the company
  • Based on engagement and dialogue with the groups it is meant for.

Download our guidance to see how these principles apply to workers, customers and communities.

Last updated: 05 Jan 2017