What is the role of a human rights officer in a company?

by Moritz Marpe

In less than three months now, the German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act (the Lieferkettengesetz, LkSG in short) will enter into force, on 1 January 2023. That’s why more and more companies are asking themselves what requirements they’ll need to meet under the new Act.

Creating the position of a human rights officer proves a valuable first step towards implementing effective supply chain due diligence. While it’s common for governmental agencies and NGOs to have human rights officers in place, corporations are often uncertain about what this role entails and how such a person could support the company’s human rights due diligence.

Under the new Act, companies are required to “identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their adverse human rights impacts”, as stipulated by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Human rights officers can play a vital role in overseeing meaningful due diligence activities and can help the executive management to effectively monitor the business’s impact on human rights and the environment.

To ensure that the position is successfully implemented, it’s important to clearly define the officer’s role and tasks within the company and the company’s due diligence processes.

These suggestions might be helpful to implement an effective human rights officer:

  • Internal coordination: The human rights officer works at the interface between the management and the operational side of human rights due diligence. This way, the topic is anchored at the highest management level, as required under the LkSG.
  • External communication: The human rights officer plays a central role in
    communicating to stakeholders and the public the progress made by the company in terms of its work on human rights and the environment. The human rights officer typically also acts as the face of a company’s supply chain due diligence efforts.
  • Implementation of the human rights and environmental policy: The human rights officer should be the first contact person when it comes to the content and implementation of a company’s human rights and environmental strategy, enshrined in its policy statement. Therefore, the company’s executive management must enable the human rights officer to acquire all the necessary expertise in this field and to equip them with the necessary resources. This is vital to ensure that human rights due diligence is appropriately implemented in “all relevant business processes”, as stipulated by the LkSG. The human rights officer has to ensure a continuous process of learning so that the company can progress in implementing ever more effective measures.
  • Documentation and reporting: Especially in light of the supervisory authority’s (BAFA) recent publication of the specifications on the reporting requirements, the human rights officer can play a meaningful role in gathering, processing and publishing reports on a company’s progress with regard to human rights due diligence. This is also necessary for complying with regulatory oversight.
  • Grievance mechanisms: The human rights officer can also facilitate the integration of learnings from grievance mechanisms and remedial efforts into the human rights due diligence processes. This may add considerably to the knowledge of risks and adverse impacts and in turn increase the effectiveness of preventative measures.

In any case, the LkSG doesn’t stipulate any specific qualifications for the position of human rights officer. A legal background, for example, is not necessarily required. Rather, it is at the discretion of the companies themselves to determine the requirements which fit the needs of the company when it comes to integrating human rights due diligence into their operations. While many may opt to install a human rights officer, other may choose to work with a designated group of persons in the form of a task force or similar. You can learn more about what to consider when setting up your human rights due diligence team in our next article on governance.

In the past, the role of human rights officer tended to be of little importance in most companies. However, such a position can prove instrumental in implementing effective human rights due diligence going forward. In the context of the LkSG, we can expect to see an uptick in the creation of roles addressing human rights within companies and their supply chains, underlining the strategic importance of the topic.

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If you need support for implementing risk analyses or for any other requirement under the Supply Chain Act, or if you have any other questions concerning human rights in your company, get in touch:

Moritz Marpe
Project Assistant