Brent Wilton has visited more than 100 countries, and he’s seen countless examples of human rights violations.

His job, as Coca-Cola’s new director of global workplace rights, is to ensure the company and its vast system always abides by its Human Rights Policy and Supplier Guiding Principles. It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s essential to protect the business and its brands.

“Anything we do can be exposed to the public,” said Wilton, who joined Coca-Cola in April. “It’s a cellphone photo away. It could happen today. It could happen tomorrow.”

Wilton’s role is a continuation of work that has grown and evolved at the company, especially over the past decade.

In 2005, Coca-Cola hired Ed Potter, an attorney and a veteran in the workplace rights world, to serve as the company’s director of global workplace rights and to lead development of a strategy to ensure respect for human rights across Coca-Cola

Potter retired June 1 after a decade with Coca-Cola. He was succeeded by Wilton, an expert who was ready to step into a corporate role.

Wilton is a native of New Zealand who studied industrial relations law at the University of Auckland. He held a number of roles in his homeland until 1999, when he joined the International Organization of Employers in Geneva as senior adviser. The IOE is a network of more than 150 business and employer organizations that focuses on issues like labor standards and human rights.

By 2003, Wilton was deputy secretary general of the IOE. In 2012, he was named secretary general. 

Potter and Wilton got to know each other over the years. Together, they developed a human rights conference that targeted U.S. businesses and was hosted by The Coca-Cola Company. In addition to the IOE, the conferences are sponsored by the U.S. Council for International Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The eighth such conference will be held at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta on Sept. 17, with an expected audience of 150 people.

Most of those attendees will come from large businesses that, like Coca-Cola, have a presence in markets around the world. Wilton will play a big role in the conference. It’s part of his work to continue Coca-Cola’s focus on respect for human rights.

Wilton needs to build on previous work at the company and more deeply embed an appreciation for human rights throughout Coca-Cola. “We have to be more than an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff that helps someone after they fall,” Wilton said. “We have to stop people from falling in the first place.”

For a global company like Coca-Cola, this is a uniquely daunting challenge. To start, Coca-Cola has on-the-ground operations around the world. Coca-Cola also works with a phalanx of franchise bottling partners and suppliers; most of them are not under the control of the company.

While that’s a very diverse group of businesses, it’s all just one thing to most people. “The trucks say Coke, the plants say Coke,” Wilton said. “Everyone thinks it’s all one company. If there’s a problem somewhere in the system, we have nowhere to hide, just because we’re not formally involved. 

The Coca-Cola system is complex and involves large facilities and a legion of people who can’t be moved easily.

In more than 200 countries and territories, Coca-Cola employees also work in nearly every culture in the world. “You have different cultural value sets, but you can’t choose to be slightly abusive in one country because that’s considered acceptable there,” he said. “We need to apply the same standards everywhere.”

Those standards are quite clear, too. The company’s policies align with – among other things – the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were formally endorsed by the company and adopted by the UN in 2011. The UN spent decades working on global human rights standards for business.

The work dates to the 1970s, which shows just how complex these issues are. In the mid 2000s, Harvard professor John Ruggie was tapped to work with the UN to develop policies that everyone could agree on. He worked with stakeholder groups from government, businesses and non-governmental organizations to shape the framework that is used today.

For Coca-Cola, abiding by this policy is not simply a matter of focusing on trouble spots in the developing world or on complex issues like child labor. Human rights risks exist in all markets. That means new investments, no matter where they are, should be evaluated to ensure compliance with Coca-Cola’s human rights policy. 

“Doing due diligence requires more than just looking at the paperwork,” Wilton said. “You need boots on the ground; you need to go and have a look.”

Right now, Coca-Cola conducts about 2,600 audits a year on the company’s supply chain. But there’s much more work to do, Wilton said.

The upside is that Coca-Cola is making progress in an area that is very difficult for all companies. “Many big companies are struggling to ensure that they are respecting human rights in their operations and supply chains, but it’s changing and improving,” Wilton said.

Wilton is also trying to make the policy simple for all employees to understand. It’s a message he will keep spreading.

“Treat people as you want to be treated,” Wilton said. “And fix issues before they become problems."