We need more effective, operational level grievance mechanisms for human rights



No responsible business enterprise sets out to have adverse impacts on human rights.

Yet due to the nature of business, it is impossible for any business to always avoid impacts, no matter how socially sustainable they try to be.

‘Adverse impacts’ simply refer to a reduction of the freedom to enjoy a certain human right.  Business enterprises therefore need to ensure that they understand how their operations impact upon their stakeholders.

This is where effective grievance mechanisms can play a key role.

A grievance mechanism is a channel of communication. It gives a voice to all stakeholders, and allows for any adverse impacts to be addressed at the earliest possible stage, before they escalate. The UNGPs encourage businesses to enable all stakeholders to voice how they are being adversely affected by a businesses’ activity

A grievance mechanism does not therefore come in one shape or size. Examples include:

  • A hotline for employees to inform management of adverse impacts, either potential or actual. This enables any employee to call the hotline in relation to an adverse impact they have seen, or can see will happen if preventative action is not taken.
  • Arranging a meeting where open dialogue is encouraged with the local community. This encourages people to come forward with adverse impacts they may have experienced as a result of the company’s activities in their local region.
  • Meeting with labour unions can also be a good way to productively discuss and acknowledge adverse impacts within the labour force.

Only companies themselves hold the key to preventing unforeseen (negative) events, which counteract socially responsible governance. A company should therefore welcome information on adverse impacts, either potential or actual, through grievance mechanisms such as these.

Business enterprises can use grievance mechanisms as a way to control their own destiny.  If you create effective grievance mechanisms, you ensure that the negative impacts of your business, however small, can be dealt with internally without negative media attention or court proceedings.

If a severe adverse impact is reported by a stakeholder through a grievance mechanism, the company has the ability to take immediate action towards mitigating and providing access to remedy. Businesses therefore take social responsibility into their own hands.

Near-miss security net

Grievance mechanisms are often confused with whistle-blowing procedures. This is only partly true. Grievance mechanisms do not have to be designed with serious adverse impacts in mind. Grievance mechanisms can be established to deal with a wide spectrum of human rights impacts, from severe, to everyday impacts that all companies have.

The goal is to create a security net that catches “near-misses” and prevents them from escalating in the future, as well as creating a channel of information that enables immediate action after a business enterprise learns about severe adverse impacts.

These mechanisms can also address human rights in general terms, or be set up in response to a very specific circumstance.  Adidas, for example, have set up a ‘third party complaints procedure’ whereby an individual can make a complaint in relation to any breach of an international human rights norm relating to their operations.  GAP Inc., on the other hand, have created a mechanism specifically for workers at their contract factories in Lesotho to hear complaints in relation to violations of their own codes of conduct.

Effectiveness Criteria for Grievance mechanisms

How can a business go about creating an effective grievance mechanism?  The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide eight criteria that should be followed in order to create effective operational-level grievance mechanisms.  Grievance mechanisms should be legitimate, accessible, predictable, equitable, transparent, rights-compatible, a source of continuous learning and based on engagement and dialogue.

The criteria are intended to provide a benchmark for designing or revising grievance mechanisms.  Although they may not provide exact guidance on how each of these criteria can be satisfied, they give an indication of what a business should take into account when attempting to provide effective mechanisms at the operational-level.

Building capacity

Understanding what this means for your business will require an understanding of your impacts and carrying out human rights impact assessments. It is essential to understand this element when creating effective grievance mechanisms.

For example, a business can only create a successful grievance mechanism when it is known to all the intended users.  Therefore you need to have a full understanding of who your stakeholders are. In order to know who all the stakeholders are, the company must have conducted an impact assessment on all 48 human rights.

All business enterprises are faced with a new opportunity in regards to human rights – the opportunity to create a sustainable environment where they can identify grievances early, and either prevent these from escalating, or provide remedy at the earliest possible stage and on their own terms.


By:  Owen Boyle, Carolina Diaz-Lönborg and Roxanne Batty


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