Dan Bross, who recently retired after 18 years leading Microsoft’s global corporate social responsibility program, is joining Article One today as a senior advisor. As the architect of Microsoft’s renowned business and human rights program, Dan was an internal champion for human rights there, and by joining us, he will serve as an expert advisor for Article One clients who are developing and expanding their approach to business and human rights
We sat down with Dan in his new home in New York to hear how he started his career in business and human rights, why he believes every person in every company has a role in promoting the respect for human rights, and why he’s excited about moving from player to coach in this important field. As Dan put it: “There’s a new business reality in the 21st century. The expectations of employees, investors, and consumers are only increasing as it relates to the role of business in society. Companies have more responsibility to address issues related to human rights where they are based and where their operations are globally.”
1. How did you get your start working in the field of business and human rights?
I have always had a passion for public policy issues, and I lived in D.C. on and off for 30 years, working for a few years on Capitol Hill and also working in government and corporate affairs.
When it comes to business and human rights, my defining moment happened when I was working for an energy company in Houston that had decided to financially support an anti-LGBT ballot initiative. They joked about keeping Houston from becoming another San Francisco or Greenwich Village. Even though I was opposed to it, and it affected me personally as a gay man, I nodded my silent approval during a meeting with the company’s senior executives. When the ballot ultimately passed, I decided to leave the company so I could apply my skills in government affairs and public policy in the nonprofit sector, focused on HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues.
That experience taught me that business has a role to play in public policy issues, and that the positions business takes have consequences to the company’s employees, local communities, and, of course, society as a whole.
While my first defining moment in business and human rights was a negative one, my second one was positive: When I joined Microsoft in 1998, I knew I was joining a company that valued and embraced diversity and understood how a more diverse, inclusive, and open workplace enhanced business value.
At Microsoft, I saw firsthand the benefit and power companies can have on social and environmental issues, public policy, and human rights. Microsoft proactively addresses these issues, and, in doing so, not only returns greater value to shareholders, but also works collaboratively with a range of external stakeholders to address key societal issues. As governments globally struggle to address issues of fundamental concern to individuals, responsible corporations have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to fill the void. As one of the world’s leading technology companies, Microsoft has a responsibility to address key human rights issues related to its business, including privacy, freedom of expression, online safety, data security, and others.
My experience with Microsoft really hardened my resolve to continue to work with companies to use a human rights approach to understand the breadth and consequences of their decisions.
2. Why did you decide to join Article One, and how would you describe your role here?
I learned so much when I was at Microsoft, and I will be forever grateful to the company and my colleagues for giving me the opportunities I had. Now I want to take those insights and experiences from working inside a company and share them with others.
One of the things I bring to Article One is my experience working inside a company on a range of CSR issues—including human rights. I understand the role that corporate leaders can play in a company and have an appreciation for how decisions are made in the corporate context. Particularly today, companies are highly matrixed, and there is a shared decision-making responsibility. One of the biggest challenges for people in positions like the one I held at Microsoft is building consensus and creating a strong foundation for collaboration internally.
Collaboration is critical: Everyone within a company has human rights responsibilities. It’s not just the purview of legal or CSR. You need to be expansive in your outreach when working on human rights within a company. You need to help others within the company appreciate that the responsibility to respect human rights is part of their job—regardless of whether they manage the supply chain, human resources, or marketing.
I want to be an advocate for our clients at Article One so they can be better advocates for human rights within their company. Part of my vision is to identify and engage more champions within companies to embrace their responsibility to respect human rights. My hope is that I can be a coach and share the lessons I learned—what worked and what didn’t.
3. What would be your ideal project here?
Two things: One, it would be great to work with a company that is just starting its CSR and human rights journey—there’s a commitment at the highest level, but the company’s human rights work is nascent. I want to help them get started.
Another project would be partnering with a company that has been working on human rights for a number of years, has done a human rights impact assessment, and is now interested in going back to evaluate the implementation and impact.
Implementation is really hard. Most people who have jobs like I had a Microsoft aren’t responsible for day-to-day operations and implementation within specific business units, so collaboration is key. It’s not good enough to do the assessment and hand the internal client your report with recommendations on what they need to do. You really need to partner with them and help them be successful. You need to extend your support to that department. And your approach to partnership will be different for every department because each department is different: different cultures, leadership styles, timelines, and operational structures.
The bottom line for any project is that I want to help companies make a real difference. I want to help more companies fully appreciate and execute on their responsibility to respect human rights. It’s easy to write a global human rights statement, but I want to make sure that these are implemented in a way that drives meaningful impact to protect, advance, and defend human rights.
4. What are some lessons you can share from your experience building Microsoft’s business and human rights program?
Culture is important—and it’s foundational. Try to understand and appreciate the unique culture of the organization you’re working for, and appreciate the culture of the departments you are partnering with.
Leadership is also key: We would not have been able to accomplish as much as we did at Microsoft had it not been for the support of senior executives across the company. But even if you don’t have buy-in, don’t let that stop you. Think creatively and brainstorm ways you can help your executives understand the role of human rights at your company. There are ways to help people who are initially indifferent become advocates and supporters. I think it would be fun to work with companies to build internal support for human rights.
The other lesson I learned is that there are many ways to achieve your goal: Sometimes it’s a straight line; sometimes it’s a curved path. I think many times, people assume that the only way to resolve an issue is in a straight line.
5. Given your experience, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities companies need to consider right now when it comes to the intersection of business and human rights?
One of the most unsettling things today is the global uncertainty. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, published a book earlier this year called A World in Disarray. The world is in disarray, with a very unsettled global political climate and an increased focus on nationalism that is affecting everything from how companies compete globally to how they talk about their values across global markets. Companies need to approach public policy issues in a way that’s attentive to what’s happening.
At the same time, I think a human rights lens can ground companies and provide a stabilizing force. We have great global documents—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights—that serve as beacons and foundations upon which companies can build. But they also need to look deep into their company culture, deep into their values, deep into their mission, and understand what is important and what they truly believe in—and be true to those principles.
Corporate executives today have a unique opportunity to lead that they didn’t have a few years ago because consumers and citizens are looking for stability, certainty, and leadership. And a human rights approach can help them do that.
We are very excited to welcome Dan to Article One. If you would like to learn more about advancing respect for human rights in your company, get in touch at email@example.com or join our Article One In Action event in New York City on June 7.