As a company committed to human rights as part of its mission of helping people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential, Microsoft has a long history of working with NGOs and industry peers to tackle important human rights issues. We were founding members of both the Global Network Initiative, which focuses on protecting the freedom of expression and privacy of internet users, and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, which promotes high labor, ethical, and environmental standards in the electronics supply chain.

Thus, when the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in June 2011, the key question arising for Microsoft was not whether or why we should apply them, but how. Given our specific circumstances as a company—our business model, global operations, and our products and services—how should we best ensure we are fulfilling our responsibility to respect human rights?

The new Guiding Principles challenges us, as well as other global companies, to move beyond from an issue-specific approach to human rights and toward a more systematic approach that considers all business activities across all human rights.

In partnership with BSR, we have undertaken an approach based on four key elements:

  1. An enquiry-based approach: This helped us clearly define a human rights strategy tailored to Microsoft’s specific products, technologies, and business model.
  2. A Global Human Rights Statement: Publishing this allowed Microsoft to set out not just our commitment to human rights, but also our key beliefs about how we can most effectively respect human rights.
  3. Human rights impact assessments: This allows us to look across all of our operations.
  4. Ongoing work: We use the findings from the assessments to inform our work going forward.

An Enquiry-Based Approach at the Corporate Level

It became clear very quickly that understanding how Microsoft can fulfill its responsibility to respect human rights wasn’t a simple mapping exercise. Thinking about Microsoft’s global footprint, and the breadth of our products and services, including potential uses of technology in the context of human rights, required a consideration of some important questions of ethics and shades of grey.

For that reason, Microsoft and BSR explored five questions:

  1. Human rights basics: What are Microsoft’s main human rights impacts, and who comprise Microsoft’s human rights constituency?
  2. Business strategy, model, and operations: What issues will grow in significance as a result of Microsoft’s strategy, business model, and evolving operations?
  3. Rule of law: What aspects of “rule of law” are most relevant for human rights at Microsoft, and how are they relevant?
  4. Market entry, exit, and engagement: From a human rights perspective, when does it make sense for Microsoft to enter a market, stay in a market, or leave a market, and how should these activities be undertaken?
  5. Economic, social, and cultural rights, and civil and political rights: Which communities are most likely to achieve greater realization of human rights through the economic empowerment that results from Microsoft’s business and products? How can Microsoft support this?

To conduct this corporate-level assessment, we used a robust methodology, by, for example, identifying Microsoft’s most significant human rights impacts against the full universe of human rights articulated in the International Bill of Rights and the International Labor Organization’s Core Conventions, and by considering the results of various stakeholder engagements.

We also invited more than 30 employees with relevant knowledge, drawn from across Microsoft business groups, to participate in this exercise. The assessment identified and then focused resources on Microsoft’s most significant human rights impacts, incorporating hot topics (such as market entry, exit, and engagement), where we examined a spectrum of opinions on the best approach for companies to take.

Microsoft’s Global Human Rights Statement

Following our enquiry, Microsoft published a Global Human Rights Statement, in order to codify four beliefs that underpin Microsoft’s strategy and approach to human rights:

  1. Power of technology: Like most technologies, information and communications technology products can be used for good or ill. Microsoft believes that government, civil society, and business have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to apply the power of technology to help individuals achieve their full potential in accordance with fundamental human rights.
  2. A global approach: Business approaches to human rights should be based on internationally recognized standards, especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  3. Engagement: Business can most effectively respect human rights through its presence in, rather than absence from, countries that present significant human rights risks.
  4. Good governance and the rule of law: Businesses respect human rights by modeling and promoting good governance and the rule of law around the world.

A key lesson from our development of this companywide statement was the importance of moving beyond talking generally about human rights and actually setting corporate direction by focusing decision-makers on a set of shared, core beliefs.

Our belief in engagement, for example, establishes very clear direction for our approach when we find ourselves in markets with poor human rights records. Put simply, we have a bias to stay, engage, and work to improve human rights conditions. In most circumstances, we think we can achieve more through engaged dialogue than through absence.

Good governance is a precondition for the protection of human rights. This sets a very clear direction for our public policy activities globally and our consistent advocacy of good governance and rule of law.

The Global Human Rights Statement reinforces (rather than replaces) Microsoft’s existing policies in areas such as privacy, equality, and labor rights, and is based on four key areas of impact:

  1. Products and partnerships: Many of Microsoft’s products help foster free expression and also help users protect their privacy. At the same time, Microsoft faces requirements from governments globally to comply with domestic laws and policies in ways that occasionally may conflict with international human rights norms. We are, of course, obliged to adhere to local law wherever we do business. To meet our human rights responsibilities in these difficult circumstances, we have adopted clear policies requiring our employees to work to meet international human rights norms to the greatest extent possible given local law and to use our influence to encourage the respect for human rights.
  2. Employees: This speaks to Microsoft’s responsibility to respect the rights of its employees, such as in the areas of equality, diversity, and work-life balance.
  3. Suppliers: Microsoft believes it has a responsibility for ensuring that its contractors, suppliers, and vendors understand and share a commitment to human rights, such as through adherence to the Microsoft Vendor Code of Conduct.
  4. Communities: Microsoft products empower individuals to be successful and reach their full potential, and we maximize these opportunities because we recognize that economic empowerment is necessary for the full realization of human rights. Through our software donation program, which reaches groups in more than 100 countries, we make software available free of charge to all nonprofit organizations that use our technology to address social and civic issues. We are also committed to closing the opportunity gap that many young people face today, and we have a number of programs dedicated to teaching students the skills necessary to harness the power of technology.

Human Rights Impact Assessments and Informing Our Work Going Forward

Consistent with the Guiding Principles, our Global Human Rights Statement commits Microsoft to undertake human rights impact assessments. The human rights profile of internet and communications companies such as Microsoft is defined by how customers use our products, and what impact that use has on human rights. For that reason—and in the absence of an industrywide consensus on how to undertake such assessments—we are working with BSR to develop an approach based on our commitments and responsibilities.

As outlined in our Global Human Rights Statement, “we assess the human rights impacts of all our operations on an ongoing basis.” We do this by regularly reviewing and updating our policies, processes, and management systems. Human rights due diligence is an ongoing process, but it is clear that acting on assessment findings is not about constructing an entirely new infrastructure for human rights; rather, it is about integrating human rights considerations into existing business processes.

Implementing the Guiding Principles gave Microsoft an opportunity to enhance our approach to human rights and align it throughout our global operations. Microsoft’s Global Human Rights Statement sets out our commitment to report on our human rights progress annually. Our recently published FY12 Citizenship Report begins that process with, for the first time, a section focused specifically on the topic of human rights. In the coming months and years, as we move further down our journey to enhance the measures we take to respect and promote human rights, we look forward to sharing more about our performance and lessons we have learned along the way.