Respect for human and workplace rights guides The Coca-Cola Company’s interactions with bottling partners, suppliers, customers, consumers, employees and communities.

As director of global workplace rights, Brent Wilton is responsible for ensuring the global Coca-Cola system abides the company's Human Rights Policy, and that the Coca-Cola supply chain complies with the company's Supplier Guiding Principles. To commemorate Human Rights Day (December 10) we spoke with the native New Zealander, who previously served as secretary-general of the International Organization of Employers (IOE).

What does respecting human rights mean to you?

Treating people as you want to be treated yourself. It means that as you go about the business of the day, make sure you treat people with respect and think about the consequences of your actions and how they might impact positively or negatively on others.

Given the current state of world affairs, why is recognizing Human Rights Day especially important in 2015?

I think for us at The Coca-Cola Company, we’ve put a stake in the ground through our Human Rights Policy around the values we stand for, and I think it’s important to remind people both inside and outside the company. Because at the end of the day, the success of The Coca-Cola Company’s Human Rights Policy rests with all of us. It’s what each of us does or doesn’t do in our day-to-jobs that will determine whether or not we live up to our commitments. Individual ownership and responsibility are important, and we don’t want to use a one-size-fits-all approach. The goal is for every employee to stop and think about their everyday actions in relation to upholding human and workplace rights. We want employees to experience those “ah-ha” moments where we pause and think about the human rights implications of our actions and decisions. Individual stewardship of our policies – that is what’s important.

Does the fact that Coca-Cola is a global company operating in more than 200 countries carry with it even greater responsibility from a human rights standpoint?

I think it does, yes. Because we operate in some countries where the values we articulate for ourselves are not necessarily ones that are fully respected by everyone in that country. So it’s important that we put a stake in the ground, stand up and say, “This is what we stand for.” It concerns me that in some countries, the rights we believe our employees have cannot be exercised because they could find themselves in jail or worse.

How do we deal with that?

You can’t change society overnight. If you are of a culture that has certain concepts around how society should operate that have been built up over centuries, how do you change that just by walking in the door of the business? And how do you carry that out of the business when you go home at night? It’s complicated. It’s about constant engagement. It’s about reinforcement and showing by example. It’s about continually standing up for our values even when it means standing up for others who cannot. It can be very uncomfortable when we bring ourselves up against some important groups in society and say, “We don’t agree with that.” But that’s what our Human Rights Policy requires us to do.

How has the company’s Human Rights Policy evolved, or how will it evolve?

Things are always changing. In the human rights space, now there is a need to look at salient human rights – focusing on people first and foremost. In the past, we’ve looked at human rights risks based on materiality to the business. As we move into this new area of salience, we must ask “What is the risk to the rightsholder?” And in many instances, the risk to the business and the rightsholder is the same because they tend to align. We recently convened an internal discussion to help define our salient human rights. We looked across the business, from sourcing to the consumer, and were able to identify emerging issues we need to talk about. We need to undertake this kind of exercise regularly because this space is changing so quickly, and varies so vastly from country to country.

Brent Wilton

Your team has produced a video featuring conversations with Coca-Cola employees about human rights. What else are you doing to commemorate Human Rights Day?

We’ve got our new Human Rights Policy Manager’s Guide, which is a tool to help people understand our Human Rights Policy and how to apply it. We also have two new brochures: one for leaders and another for employees on the behaviors required to adhere to the policy.

Back to my first question of what respecting human rights means to you. When you pose that same question to Coca-Cola employees around the world, are you hoping for the same answer every time?

Not the same answer, but the same sorts of themes coming through. How you work with, relate to and respect others. How you ensure you don’t do harm while trying to do good.

Is there more scrutiny in this space than there was, say, 20 years ago?

Much more, yes, and also a greater call for transparency. What we do and how we do it will change over time. That can be quite uncomfortable because people aren’t looking for the good things you do, but rather, what you do when things go wrong. Of course, we’re working to make sure we don’t have to fix things because they’re not broken to begin with, but there are always issues out there, so we do need to make sure our remediation process is very good and very quick. And that leaders know it’s about timeliness, and addressing issues before they become problems. Letting issues fester and grow can negatively impact your brand and make remediation much more difficult.