Roger McElrath, an Associate Director at BSR, advises companies in the food and agriculture and oil industries on sustainability policies and programs in the areas of supply chain management, community development, stakeholder relations, reporting, and strategy. Prior to joining BSR, Roger worked for the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, doing research and consulting on international and domestic labor issues for multinational companies. Louden Richason, Kenan’s Pathways of Change intern placed at BSR, conducted this interview with Roger at the BSR office in San Francisco.
Louden Richason: Where did you grow up? What were your early years like?
Roger McElrath: I grew up in Oakland, California. My early years were very idyllic. I spent a lot of time on the ball field. I played sports quite a bit. I lived in a very nice place – Piedmont in the East Bay in Northern California. I really just had a very nice, easy going early part of my life – not a lot of struggles. I had three brothers and sisters, two parents, lived in a very nice neighborhood, and actually had a very good childhood.
LR: What is your educational background?
RM: I went to a number of schools. My undergraduate career is rather checkered. I was lucky enough to end up graduating from Golden Gate University in San Francisco with a B.A. in Business Management, and then I have a graduate degree from George Washington University in International Relations.
LR: What did your path to business and human rights, and your path within it, look like?
RM: I always had a feeling that the best way to address issues, social and environmental and community issues, was through business. The government already has a lot of programs in place and has already focused a lot on that. The missing actor to me has always been the business community. So, my path to human rights began at the Wharton School where I was a researcher in a think tank there on labor relations, and this think tank was basically a corporate think tank where we provided advice to companies on how to manage labor relations around the world. We were more focused on the corporate side than the labor side. We were trying to advise companies on how to best engage with unions and things like that, but that exposed me to the issues around employment and lower level employment and manufacturing employment and problems with management union relations – and how that can negatively affect workers and how companies have taken advantage of loose regulations and not having unions to provide decent standards of living for workers in many countries around the world. It was not our intent at Wharton to support that, but that is what I had seen.
I left Wharton and I worked a little bit for the International Labor Organization doing some research for them – and a little for the World Bank, never directly working for them but as a contractor. Then I ended up hooking up with BSR very surreptitiously. I did a job for the Academy of Sciences when the Clinton administration was thinking of including labor relations within foreign policy – with their foreign policy but more specifically with their trade agreements, so basically what NAFTA ended up doing. They had a series of public meeting around the country that I was what they call the rapporteur for, so I ended up writing up these meetings that took place – public forums where anyone could come in and provide their opinion on whether the U.S. government should include labor issues in trade negotiations. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t obvious back then. So, I wrote that up and at one of those meetings I met someone named Debbie Obrien, who worked for BSR. She gave a presentation, and that was my introduction to BSR. I ended up having coffee with her and asking her if I could assist in any way at BSR. BSR happened to have a labor law database at that time, which was a labor law database for 50+ countries around the world. Frankly, no one at BSR really wanted to deal with it. I had a background in labor law from my work at Wharton, so I said I will come in and work on that for free. So, I came in an volunteered for a month, and immediately they started putting me to work on different jobs – just like you have experienced. So, they started paying me and then I became an employee three months later or something. That’s how I ended up starting to work at BSR, but I always did have that in the back of my mind that I thought business was the best way to really influence social issues beyond what government can do.
LR: What does your work at BSR entailed since you have been here? What does your day-to-day look like now?
RM: I am an advisor at BSR. I work with a variety of different industry groups. I work with the food and agriculture and energy and mining sectors. I work across all different sustainability areas – environmental issues, community issues, and social issues. So, I have a varied background, but now I have become more and more focused on social issues. My path into human rights really started when I first arrived at BSR because we had a company, still a member, called Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. In 2003, their CEO made a commitment to paying a living wage for all of their direct employees. Our contact at Novartis immediately phoned us and said, “Would you please help us? How do we define living wage in 80+ countries around the world? We at corporate headquarters have no idea how to do this, so please help us.” I happened to be at BSR at the time working with a fellow who was there, an account relationship manager at BSR, and he and I sat down, and basically he handed the project to me. I have been running BSR’s living wage program ever since, which now includes eight companies, over one hundred countries that we calculate living wage for, and I manage the internal process of engaging with country offices on living wages – something I am doing right now, before we started this meeting. So my principle area that I do day-to-day work on is living wage, which is a key aspect of human rights standard of living issues. That’s one area.
I also have done impact assessments – social impact assessments for mining, human rights impact assessments for oil and gas companies. I am engaged in a variety of ways in the human rights space. I also teach at the University of California on business and human rights. I have multiple tentacles that go out on human rights, and every day there is something that I do that relates in some way to human rights. Almost everything we do at BSR has a human rights component to it, no matter what you are doing. I am doing a materiality assessment right now for a major food and agriculture company, and one of their issues is the smallholder farmers – they have 40,000 plus of them in their supply chain. How do they make sure that those people have an adequate standard of living? It’s very much a human rights issue. So, it’s something that touches everything we do at BSR. I don’t constantly think about human rights, but the reality is when I go home at night, a lot of what I have done has some kind of connection to human rights.
LR: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your current work?
RM: The most rewarding has been seeing projects actually have an impact. It’s not always the case with BSR and consulting in general. You don’t always see what companies or other organizations do with the work that you’ve done. You don’t always get that feeling that it’s been impactful, although I think a lot of what we do is impactful. It’s just hard to measure and hard to see because we don’t implant people within companies like a PWC or Deloitte – where you’re there for six months and you actually run a project. That’s why living wage has been rewarding. I do the internal management piece, so I understand the wages that are being adjusted and often times how many employees are having their wages adjusted. That’s been rewarding for me.
I think the most challenging piece at BSR is the nature of the work. It’s complex work, and it’s very varied. Everybody here does different things each day, so it’s hard to become an expert in an area, although I think we’ve gotten better at that at BSR – allowing people to focus. We do have a human rights area that you’re part of, and people can really focus on that. That wasn’t the way it used to be. It was more of you did everything, which was interesting but at times frustrating because you were a jack-of-all-trades and not necessarily an expert in anything. The financial ups and downs we’ve had over the last fourteen years I’ve been here – everybody goes through that, but that’s always a challenge to deal with that. I think we are kind of past that now.
The most rewarding is seeing the impact of what you’ve done – outside of a company or even within a company and how a company thinks about things. We did a human rights impact assessment for a major oil company in Myanmar, and we had a meeting in Myanmar for two days with the executive team there. We could see the evolution of their thinking over that two days in terms of how they were perceiving their impact on human rights in Myanmar, and a really rewarding point was when the general manager of the Myanmar operations said that developing an onshore platform – this was an offshore off the state of Rakhine, which is where a lot of troubles are still going on between Muslims and Hindus – would potentially create a human rights issue because it would be in an area where Muslims would migrate down northern Rakhine to southern Rakhine. The Muslims are in these camps that are in terrible conditions, so they will migrate to jobs anywhere. This could in turn cause conflict with the Hindu population that was more prevalent in the south of Rakhine state. The fact that the company even started thinking that what is creating jobs could actually lead to religious conflict because people will migrate to these jobs and how to deal with that and how to manage that was really rewarding. Most companies prior to this thought, “Oh we are creating jobs. It’s not our problem what happens. We are doing our job.” But this company thought beyond that, that “No, that’s not just our job. We have to think about what might happen from a human rights perspective because we are creating these jobs. It’s more than just creating jobs. Our responsibility is greater than that.” That was very rewarding, maybe one of the most rewarding things I’ve seen at BSR actually. It’s quite unusual and quite complementary for the company to think that way.
LR: On a more general note, in what ways has your work at BSR changed your views about business and human rights?
RM: I think in terms of the overall perspective of human rights, being at BSR has provided me with a window into the human rights field at a leading organization. It has actually expanded my horizons in terms of human rights – what are they, what can companies do to actually protect them. Part of that is simply the evolution of the business and human rights field. Part of that is the evolution of things like technology, where you start having privacy issues and things that were not really issues for business to deal with before, but they are now. The globalization and interconnectedness of the world has obviously increased the scope of human rights that businesses need to take into consideration and also the transparency. You can’t hide anymore. That has led to businesses having to expand their perception of what human rights are and how they need to deal with them. That also has affected me because I have been involved in that, and I’ve seen it, so that has influenced my perception of human rights and how it’s evolving.
LR: What skills have helped you the most to succeed in the business and human rights field?
RM: I think one is an intuitive sense of how to deal with people. The skill is almost a mindset that you have to understand the person across the table and what they are facing in their organization. You’re usually trying to get someone to do something, and you have to understand, or be empathetic, to what that person is going through in their own organization. Given I came in older than the typical BSR employee, I had work experience. I worked at Chevron, I worked at Wharton, I worked at a variety of places. I’ve been exposed to a lot of business and you understand that it’s not as easy as we may think in the NGO world just to go in and check a box. Just do it. It’s not that easy in companies. They have to go through a lot of hurdles. I have a lot of respect for people in companies in the sustainability field. They are fighting the battles internally. They are no less dedicated than we are here. It’s just that they are up against different organizational pressures than we are. It’s easy for us to make recommendations to do something. It is much harder for them to implement, even if they think it is perfectly right, even if the CEO thinks it is perfectly right. Organizations are complex, and there’s lots of different interests involved. Understanding that has helped me in dealing with companies.
I also think I have pretty strong writing skills and that has been a big benefit at BSR, being able to succinctly put my thoughts on paper of emails, whatever it might be, being able to do that in a way that has gotten pretty strong reviews from companies and elsewhere. Analytical skills in general – you have to be able to sit down and look at an issue with a fresh piece of paper in front of you. It’s a blank slate. I like to look at issues that way. I like to start there. I don’t like to come in with preconceived notions about things. That idea almost relates to the first point of understanding who you are talking to across the table. You have to be able to do that to be effective as a consultant, and that’s what we are. We’re advisors, consultants, whatever you want to call us. We are trying to help companies implement things, and that requires empathy in terms of understanding who they are and where they are coming from. In general, communication skills – being able to speak publicly and things like that.
I don’t think there’s a huge need for a technical component in the sustainability field. None of this is rocket science. None of this is that hard to pick up if you have a reasonable interest in it. You can pick up a lot of the sustainability issues and run with them. It’s important coming out with a degree like you will. That’s a huge leg up, but I don’t think there’s a barrier there if you really are dedicated to things. Yeah, you have to be able to analyze things. You have to be able to do quantitative work. You have to be able to write. You do have to understand business and have some kind of understanding of how businesses work and the pressures businesses are under. That’s basically who we trying to influence – the business community. That doesn’t mean you need to take accounting and finance classes and all that kind of stuff, but you do have to understand how business works.
LR: Are there any other organizations or companies that you look to as leaders in the business and human rights field?
RM: I think obviously there are the Shifts of the world. There are other organizations – the Danish Institute of Human Rights, where Margaret came from. There are other groups doing good work in this field, and I think we learn from them and hopefully they learn from us. We compete in some areas, some areas we don’t.
There is a lot going on in this realm, not only in the nonprofit world. Academics in the U.S. – I’m involved in one at Cal. There’s good thinking going on there as well. It’s becoming more and more a part of academic programs – this idea of business and human rights. There are various other organizations as well as institutions you wouldn’t think are influential in this space but they are. Governments as well – governments, especially in Europe, are doing a lot in terms of supporting human rights. At BSR, we look to all of those and we try to learn from them. Again, we compete in some areas, but there’s plenty of work to go around. We don’t have to worry too much about losing jobs. There’s enough for all of us to do.
LR: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in the field and the biggest contributions still needed?
RM: I think it almost still is the basics. There are lots of companies out there that really haven’t begun on the path of dealing with human rights. We deal with very big companies and maybe we tend to get a little myopic in terms of well, everybody understands what human rights are, everybody has human rights policy, we don’t need to do that anymore. Yeah, for the companies we work with, that’s true, but for the majority of companies out there, they haven’t even begun to think about this issue. That, to me, is continuing to do what we have been doing, which is that basic educational aspect of human rights. I think we will always be doing that. That will always be on our plate. It will decrease, and it has decreased, but I think we will still be doing that.
In terms of the biggest opportunity, it is probably in the area of the impact assessments. For those companies that do have a human rights policy and understand there is responsibility there and believe in the UN guiding principles and accept that and support it, most of them still haven’t done impact assessments or have done them for their full operations. I’m not sure any company in the world has done a human rights impact assessment for every single operation it has. If you think of Nestle or Unilever, they have hundreds of operations around the world. They haven’t done impact assessments for all those. So, I think that is the real opportunity that we are trying to exploit. Let’s go out and find those issues and really try to nail this down.
After that, probably five or maybe ten years from now, although we are starting it now, you’ll see increasing emphasis on integrating this into the business processes and procedures. We’ve been talking about sustainability for a long time and this whole integration piece. Ever since I started a long time ago, there’s been this underlying theme of the really important issues here are integrating this into your management processes, whether it’s environmental issues or social issues. How do companies integrate these criteria into their management processes and procedures and decision-making procedures? For human rights, that’s critical. Human rights can be touched by numerous departments within companies, whether it’s marketing or public affairs or supply chain. How do we integrate a human rights perspective into how those decisions are made on who we are marketing to or who we are choosing for a supplier? Frankly, that hasn’t bene done very well even yet for sustainability issues, let alone now trying to dive more into human rights issues, although there’s a pretty strong crossover with a lot of supply chain stuff in terms of labor and human rights. It’s just a new way of talking about them. I think that that integration piece is one that we really need to work on now as well as in the future. Bringing some ideas and thoughts to that – it gets into the behavioral science and change processes, so it gets us out a little bit of our comfort zone at BSR – probably people we are hiring in the future will have some background in organizational behavior. How do you actually get organizations to change what they are doing? That’s basically what we are asking them to do – to change management. Look at this a different way. You can have dictates from above telling you to do this, but that doesn’t necessarily get the job done. There’s a whole area of expertise in this idea of organizational change that I think we will incorporate more and more into what BSR does. Our projects will involve more of not just a human rights impact assessment but actually integrating this into your processes and procedures, which is just following the UN Guiding Principles, just going down the line. A lot of companies have grievance mechanisms, but I don’t think they are being done necessarily in the right way, but that’s not really new to them. To me, that’s an implementation phase as well. It’s an integration piece.
For me, the big ones are continuing impact assessments and the integration piece, which is where you really start seeing the impact of what you are doing. You can give a company a list of twenty issues that are the human rights impacts, and then what? That’s great, but now what do we do? We need to be able to say, “We can help you with that issue as well.” Not just say, “Go talk to PWC about that.” I think we have an opportunity to play a role there in the integration piece.
LR: You touched on this a bit in the previous question, but on a more general note, what do you think the future of the business and human rights field will look like in 20, 30, 40 years?
RM: Tough question. I don’t think there is going to be less pressure on companies. I think pressure will increase. I think that will come from governments. If you look at the big structure of human rights law, international as well as domestic, mostly domestic laws around every human rights issue, every country has laws. The problem is they are not enforced. Including in places like the Untied States, they are not necessarily enfo_rced. I think the government’s role will increase significantly, not necessarily from a law perspective but from an enforcement perspective, which will in turn put pressure on companies.
Depending on the country, whether is has resources or not, and we are seeing that right now – governments are expecting companies to do more. Companies are pushing back on that because they can’t be in the enforcement business. I think the future is going to be companies getting more in that area where they are hopefully not going to be running their own police forces, but this area of taking the role of government in countries is probably going to be something that’s going to be an expectation of companies in developing countries, in those countries that don’t have a lot of resources. That may be the short-term.
Twenty or thirty years I’m not sure, but I can see that as an evolution as you see the business and if you take a Walmart or someone like that, their revenues are larger than a lot of countries in the world. The resources that the private sector can bring to bear on this issue are greater than frankly most governments in the world. To me, that’s going to put more and more pressure on companies to have an active role in guaranteeing human rights. I think it’s probably going to go beyond the respect framework, that companies are going to be expected to do more than just respect. We are talking again down the road, and there are lots of problems with that. You don’t necessarily setting laws or enforcing laws, but I think there is going to be some kind of nuance there that is going to see companies playing a greater role in areas where they are not necessarily accustomed to playing a role. It’s a resource issue. They have the resources to do it, and governments don’t, so the expectation is going to be there. We’ll see how that develop but more broadly than that, will companies be more and more expected to engage on human rights issues and to play a role in protecting them and respecting them? Yes, absolutely.
So, I think this field is, I mean it’s an ancient field. It’s been around forever, human rights, so this is nothing really new. What’s new is the way the world has evolved economically in terms of globalization and integration across countries and the expansion of business, and that’s not going to stop. Then the issue of transparency and technology is bringing the world to where we know what’s going on in most places around the world today where we didn’t before. That in itself puts a lot of pressure on businesses to act in the right way as well as to maybe go beyond what it thinks is its role in society. I think that is going to get greater than it is today. When every person on the planet has a smart phone, and we are coming up to that point, and has connection, that’s revolutionary in terms of transparency and expectation level and basically just the interconnectedness of the globe. That has implications for how business operates and how it thinks about its role in society and I think that role is just going to get greater. Whether we’ll have a business state, I don’t know, but maybe Walmart be a country. I don’t know.