Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Lessons From BrewDog’s Big Human Rights Controversy

Adobe Stock image
It may be true that sustainability commitments enhance employee motivation and loyalty, but the case of BrewDog illustrates how much more is required than external messaging and enunciated goals.

Could drinking a beer help fight corruption and protect human rights?

Punk beer brand BrewDog shouted yes. At the start of the Qatar World Cup in 2022, the Scottish brewer sought to draw attention to its sustainability credentials with abrash marketing statement: “Football was dragged through the mud, before a single ball was even kicked. Let’s be honest: Qatar won it through bribery. On an industrial scale. Football is meant to be for everyone. But in Qatar, homosexuality is illegal, flogging is an accepted form of punishment, and it’s OK for 6,500 workers to die building your stadium.”  To prove this wasn’t just empty talk, BrewDog added that it would donate the profits from sales of its Lost Lager during the tournament to fight human rights abuses. A few days later, the company was forced to clarify that it had just signed an agreement to sell its beer in the Gulf via a distributor and would continue to broadcast World Cup matches in its pubs.

Media coverage zeroed in on BrewDog’s colorful history of disingenuous rhetoric rather than the human rights issues it was hoping to highlight. Journalists reminded readers that only a year after the fast-growing brewer had obtained vaunted B Corporation certification as a responsible business, employees had issued an open letter alleging a toxic and misogynistic “culture of fear” at the company, where they said they’d been bullied and “treated like objects.” Just weeks after the Qatar campaign launched, all that funding from impact investors, an “equity for punks” crowdfunding round, and BrewDog’s proclaimed efforts to decrease deforestation, manage waste, and reduce carbon emissions crashed into a wall of questions—and renewed interest in a BBC documentary critiquing the company’s workplace culture. When BrewDog’s board proved unable to satisfy a request for “additional measures” from the administrators, it lost its B Corp certification.

At the very least, the sudsy saga shows that if you wish to prove your company has values, you cannot treat how you impact your employees (who are members of society) as a separate concern from how you impact the world. The legacy approach treats organizational culture as a separate practical concern from sustainability or compliance: the human resources department “owns” culture and employee engagement while compliance manages the rules and processes meant to prevent wrongdoing.

We are regularly told that sustainability commitments enhance employee motivation and loyalty. The case of BrewDog illustrates how much more is required than external messaging and enunciated goals. Maintaining an integrated organizational culture has never been more important, and standard approaches never more anachronistic.

Soaring interest in more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations best illustrates how emerging ethics challenges are not principal-agent problems in need of legalistic solutions but multidimensional issues that are fast transforming organizational culture.

Today’s imperative for companies to become far more inclusive poses conflicting pressures. Globalization implies the breaking down of geographical boundaries and cultural differences, and vigilance against hypocrisy presses organizations to be more consistent in their practices. Companies face a countervailing need, however, to honor avariety of cultural norms and values. That’s difficult enough to manage in itself before we add the external pressure for companies to act on social issues. How does an organization celebrate LGBTQ people while operating in locales where their lifes are at risk? How does a company balance internal pressure to speak up on controversial issues against the prospect that it might foster unrealistic expectations and trigger retaliation?

A particular challenge regarding pressures for diversity, equity, and inclusion is that they come with distinctive dimensions for individuals, teams, organizations, society, and political change. Employees increasingly claim such characteristics as age, values, race, and gender as important factors in their identities and what can be expected of them. Now factor in soaring political polarization and partisan tensions.

These intersectional identities weigh heavily on perceptions of fairness and satisfaction at work. The expectation that an organization should adapt to individual needs is growing. Advice abounds on how to realize personal values at work. Having maturedamong the echo chambers of social media, many young people come into the workplace with an inclination to discuss political and social issues and the expectation that this will bring positive attention. Meanwhile, plenty of other employees remain reluctant to share their thoughts openly. Notwithstanding views expressed by a vocal minority, it’s critically important for you to avoid thinking that any consensus exists in the workforce. Well-intentioned advice to align your corporate giving with “employee values,” for instance, can make employees feel pressured by a boss to donate to a popular cause they quietly oppose.

Company leaders are struggling for good reason: there is no neat, comprehensive solution. CEOs have recruited heads of diversity and charge them with transforming the organization, but they frequently lack sufficient budget and authority to drive the effort. Another problem is that employee expectations seem to be growing so exponentially that slow and steady progress on issues of inclusion and responsibility can feel more like backsliding. Where inequities are recognized, there is agreement on erasing them, but views differ markedly as to an acceptable timeline and how drastic remedial measures need to be.

It makes good sense to regard diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in a human rights framework, which emphasizes that everyone deserves dignity and respect. Managing backlash over controversial questions on vaccines, reproductive rights, sexual identity, and so forth becomes easier once you recognize that each person deserves freedom of expression and bodily autonomy but has no right to impose beliefs on others.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.