This post originally appeared on BSR's blog.
When I moved to Indonesia for BP in 2000, I was so thoroughly indoctrinated into the company's road-safety program that one Saturday night I asked a taxi driver if he would please put on his seatbelt. He eyed me in his rearview mirror. "Are you with BP?"
What an employee does outside of the office both reflects on the company and signals how he or she will behave on the job.
Which is why, after years of insisting that corporate social responsibility must be all about a company's core business, I began to think differently after moderating a panel Thursday on companies' responsibilities to combat sexual exploitation.
One-third of all sex purchase takes place on business travel. While buying sex is legal in some places, and can happen between consenting adults, it can also contribute to the global pandemic of human trafficking and modern-day slavery, which is estimated to affect around 27 million men, women, and children.
Companies whose core business could facilitate trafficking and exploitation -- such as hotels, airlines, and travel agencies -- are banding together to tackle the problem. Developed in 1996, the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism has garnered 1,300 signatories from 42 countries. Delta Airlines trains its reservation agents to flag frequent group bookings to and from destinations where sexual exploitation is commonplace. Delta also asks airport staff to watch for signs of trafficking, such as passengers without control over their own travel documents.
But what about companies outside of the travel and tourism industry that send employees to places where prostitution is illegal and commonplace? Partaking in sexually oriented activities with clients is (thankfully) increasingly frowned upon, if not explicitly banned in companies' codes of conduct. But what if business partners aren't involved, just the individual employee (and you're not a Secret Service agent)?
Some would argue that companies have no claim on what their employees do on their own time. But is there really such a thing as "after hours" anymore?
How people spend their personal time is clearly fair game for employment decisions: Most CEOs in the New York Times' weekly "Corner Office" column ask job candidates about their personal lives, for clues as to how they'll work and whether they'll be a good corporate ambassador. And there's no shortage of stories about job hopes dashed by Facebook indiscretions.
Employees' behavior related to sex and gender are legitimate grounds for corporate intervention: Most jurisdictions require companies to do antidiscrimination and anti-harassment training, and more business leaders now believe that creating a culture of inclusivity and respect is not just a matter of compliance but of competitive advantage.
So what should companies do? First, they can explicitly ban sexual exploitation in their codes of conduct, making it clear what is unacceptable and giving staff cover for stepping away from or calling out bad behavior. They can also join initiatives like the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking to develop and share best practices, such as employee training modules.
Most importantly, companies must recognize that human trafficking and modern-day slavery are one of those massive global challenges for which the private sector can be part of the problem or part of the solution. If companies are to meet their responsibility to treat people with respect and dignity, they must start with how employees behave -- on, off, and around the clock.