How can you tell whether company processes and initiatives to respect human rights are working?

Human rights champions within companies work hard to make a difference in the lives of workers, communities and consumers impacted by their business, but often lack good indicators to know if they are meeting their goals. As a result, senior leaders struggle to know which human rights initiatives they should allocate resources to. Meanwhile, the data reaching investors and civil society organizations is typically too weak and superficial to distinguish the ‘good companies’, successfully tackling risks to people, from those whose efforts are poorly designed or implemented.

The truth is, there is no single way to evaluate human rights programs; nor is there a magic metric that can tell us whether an initiative is improving life for people. But certainly, the indicators and data that stakeholders usually do have at hand, are not the right ones.

We won’t develop better indicators without a change in mindset. Our tool for indicator design will support a new way of thinking that is anchored into the outcomes we are trying to achieve, as opposed to counting what is easy to count.


Numbers of people trained, suppliers audited and grievances processed tell us nothing about actual outcomes for people or the business itself. Nor do checklists of words in policies or of processes adopted. They leave us trapped in the realm of inputs, activities and outputs, with little more than hope linking them to the change we are trying to achieve.

Applying Theory of Change…with a twist!

Examining the systems of cause and effect that lead to results in people’s lives has long been central to theory of change (ToC) models used in the fields of development and public policy. The model helps highlight assumptions that may put the causal logic at risk and then identify indicators that will show whether the logic ultimately holds true. Learn more about ToC here.

Following early consultations, we took this classic ‘theory of change’ model and adapted it to fit the particularities of evaluating business respect for human rights:

  • We made better ‘outcomes for people’ the objective, rather than some more abstract, longer-term positive ‘impact’ that will be hard to attribute to a business
  • We distinguished outcomes for people from outcomes for the business, recognizing that while both will matter, they are not the same, and the first focus should be on the former.
  • We separated the outputs that reflect intended behaviors and practices from indicators of companies’ actual behaviors and practices.
  • We recognized that change is not linear and systems are complex and worked on ways to reflect that complexity without losing the clarity and practicality that the ToC model offers.
  •  We are now piloting the approach with a number of companies to learn from the process and further improve it. This pilot phase will continue in the months to come.
  • We will then develop this into a tool that can be applied by companies and their partners when designing indicators to evaluate their processes and initiatives to address risks to human rights.

Latest Resources

Research and Outputs on Tool for Indicator Design
2 Resources
August 2019 | Concept Note

Evaluating Business Respect for Human Rights: A Theory of Change Methodology to Develop Meaningful Indicators

In this piece, we discuss our Theory of Change methodology, and why it’s such a valuable tool for evaluating business respect for human rights.

September 2018 | Discussion Paper

Discussion Paper #1 Evaluating Business Respect for Human Rights: Towards a Shared Way of Thinking

In Shift’s first discussion paper for Valuing Respect, we propose two complementary ways to think about the breadth of information – and associated indicators – that might be useful in evaluating a company’s human rights performance and therefore supporting improvements in reporting and business respect for human rights.

About the Valuing Respect Project