Insights at UBC Sauder

How the law increases expectations of business responsibility

Posted 2017-07-28

In order to stay ahead in today’s complex business world, corporate leaders must understand how society’s expectations of business are changing – and the law is a major driver of those expectations.

That’s why the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at UBC Sauder hosted last week’s Academic-Practitioner Roundtable in Responsible Business and the Law. Expert speakers addressed evolving areas of the law ranging from social enterprise and bribery and corruption to human rights litigation and gender expression for an audience of students, staff, and community members.

“It was profoundly valuable to hear a multi-stakeholder perspective on the evolution of law and business,” said Christie Stephenson, executive director of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics. “At the Centre, we're committed to transforming the conversation around ethics in business, and the success of our inaugural Academic-Practitioner Roundtable is another meaningful step towards that goal.”

Dr. Carol Liao, assistant professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law, opened up the discussion with a talk on the economic challenges of non-profits and the emerging field of social enterprise law.

“Traditionally, non-profits carry out social missions while corporations focus on shareholder value, but non-profit leaders say the economic restraints on them undermine their potential for social impact,” she said. “Canada and countries around the world are now experimenting with 'hybrid corporations' that have dual mandates, but the field is still embryonic.”

Another area of the law deserving attention is bribery and corruption. Connor Bildfell, a Judicial Law Clerk at the British Columbia Court of Appeal, spoke about facilitation payments, a “maddeningly gray area of anti-corruption law that leaves many compliance officers exasperated.”

Canada’s 2013 Fighting Foreign Corruption Act included a ban on facilitation payments – money paid to foreign public officials to speed up processes the officials are already bound to perform – to be brought into force later by the Cabinet with approval from the Governor General. However, despite pressure from NGOs to prohibit facilitation payments, the ban has yet to be brought into force and thus, four years later, facilitation payments remain legal.

Another speaker, Elisabeth Cooke, Managing Director of Inclusivity, discussed the differences between gender assignment, gender identity and gender expression. The BC Human Rights Code was recently extended to protect gender expression, a change that has yet to be interpreted in BC court. Federal law has had the same protections for longer and trans people have tended to be successful in discrimination suits. Cooke said businesses must work to ensure their policies and culture accommodate employees' diversity.

Anne Wittman, adjunct faculty at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, highlighted how quickly international human rights have changed for the corporate world since 2003, when businesses rejected a UN treaty, to 2011, when businesses accepted U.N. guidelines for a principled commitment to human rights. The guidelines are still voluntary and lack effective enforcement mechanisms, however.

Matt Eisenbrandt, special advisor for the Canadian Centre for International Justice, followed Wittman’s talk by breaking down the cases before Canadian courts that are sure to set precedent for the liability of Canadian parent companies whose subsidiaries operate abroad.

“It’s a really new area of law in Canada and it’s being litigated now, so we’re watching to see what happens,” said Eisenbrandt.

The Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics has made the Academic-Practitioner Roundtable an annual event thanks to overwhelmingly positive feedback from the roundtable’s presenters and attendees.