60 seconds with… Shami Chakrabarti CBE


4 min read

Shami Chakrabarti is Director of  Liberty, the human rights group. Shami has been at the helm of the organisation for 12 years and recently announced plans to step down once her successor is appointed. A Barrister by background, Shami is a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple and Chancellor of Essex University.

If you could add one item to the board agenda of every UK company, what would it be? 

I suspect I have a slightly different background to your usual interviewees, and perhaps even your readers, as the Director of a not-for-profit. We can all agree, though, that looking after staff and respecting their rights leads to greater happiness, loyalty and productivity. To that end, I would like to add a question to the agenda – ‘what are we doing to improve the lives of our employees?’

This stands in sharp contrast with the vicious Trade Union Bill currently making its way through Parliament. Government is abusing its legislative power to facilitate abuses of its power as a large employer. But I suspect that most of your readers will know from experience that harmonious and productive industrial relations are built on consultation and conversation - not draconian legislation.

What measure would you introduce to boost board diversity? 

We’ve been moving in the right direction, but it’s not enough – it’s a tragedy that we are still having to ask this question in 2016. Find me a sphere of life untainted by profound inequality (especially on gender lines) and I’ll be impressed.

I would call for some affirmative action; possibly only on a time-limited basis as an agent of progressive change. Things will remain the same unless there is a deliberate shift in practice. Only then will diversity start to become an unconscious norm.

What do you think makes a great board? 

I think a great board is not so big as to be unwieldy and disconnected, and not so small as to be incapable of real multidisciplinary scrutiny and discussion. It is friendly enough for collective responsibility and purpose, and yet formal enough for genuinely good governance.

We have a great board at Liberty with people who have come together with a single motivation – to help protect our basic rights and freedoms. They are responsible for the strategic direction of one of the country’s oldest and most successful human rights campaigning organisations. Their diversity of experience and skills plays a huge role in their success, as well as an absolute commitment to the cause.

If you were Chairman of a large multinational, how would you prevent unethical practice under your watch?  

The key is to remember that unethical practice hurts pretty much everybody in the end – it hurts consumers who are essentially tricked into parting with their hard-earned money; it hurts competitors and can have a devastating effect on the livelihood of their employees; and, ultimately, it hurts the offending company’s profits – and potentially its workforce – once the practices come to light. It’s a lose-lose situation.

If I were chair of a large company I would hope to lead by example, creating a climate of ethics-based decision-making. Additionally, it would be important to have a code of practice in place reflecting this ethos and to create a series of checks and balances to ensure immoral activity doesn’t slip through the net.

Do you consider business to be a force for good in British society? 

Business can be an incredible force for good as a creative and ethical producer, service provider, employer and significant societal voice. I would like to hear louder business voices in defence of human rights.

Recent statistics from Thomson Reuters show that more and more businesses have been looking to the Human Rights Act to protect themselves in many different types of litigation. The Government plans to scrap the HRA.

Businesses are perfectly placed to lobby against its repeal, not just for their own sake, but for the soldiers, journalists, bereaved families, victims of domestic violence, slavery and rape that it has helped over the past 15 years – ordinary people holding the powerful to account. There’s no better way to serve society than to fight for our hard-won freedoms. And the louder and more influential your voice, the more responsibility you have to do so.

What is the best decision you’ve ever made in your career? 

The move to Liberty is easily the best career decision I’ve made. There have been ups and downs of course, but it is a real privilege to act as caretaker of this great organisation.

Whilst here, I've been proud of some very important recruitment and promotion decisions. It's all about people in the end.

What book is on your bedside table? 

I spend the majority of my spare time reading, so this changes constantly. Right now it’s In Search of Mary: The Mother of all Journeys by Bee Rowlatt. It’s a funny, poignant and important rediscovery of Mary Wollstonecraft, an incredible woman who was one of the first human rights campaigners.

What is your golden rule?

I am anyone's equal and nobody’s superior.

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