Activism in the workplace. What should you do?

activism in the workplace

Employee activism is on the rise. People are more aware than ever about social inequality, climate change and other issues, and they—especially the younger generations—expect their employers to support these causes. Now more than ever, employers need effective ways to navigate controversial issues and activism at the workplace.

What Is Employee Activism?

Employee activism, also known as workplace activism and employee-led activism, refers to coordinated, collective actions employees take to advocate for social change. These actions may include promoting or countering change in their organization or using the organization as a platform to bring attention to an issue in society at large.

Unlike labor unions, workplace activists are not focused on influencing wages and working conditions but on local and global social and environmental issues. While labor unions are constricted by collective bargaining agreements and laws, employee activism is not regulated by contracts or laws.

Employee activists can be entry-level workers, managers, senior executives, full-time, part-time, in short, anyone at work. Employees frequently team up with advocacy organizations and community groups to achieve a common goal.

A Growing Trend

Many employees nowadays want to work for companies that do more good than harm to social justice and the environment, and so they expect—even demand—their employers to show greater corporate social responsibility (CSR).

As a result, companies can no longer afford to sidestep social or political issues. In other words, employees are forcing employers to take sides.

In recent years, U.S. companies have made the headlines because of employee activism. In 2020, hundreds of Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout to protest the company’s decision to not censor then-President Trump’s controversial posts. In 2019, more than 7,500 Amazon employees supported a shareholders’ resolution asking their company’s to take action on climate change, among other issues. A year earlier, thousands of Google employees throughout the world walked off the job to protest the company’s lenient sexual harassment policies.

These events herald a new age of employee activism that is not tied to wages and working conditions but to social values and principles and that places pressure on employers to support certain social issues whether they agree with them or not.

What Employees Want and Why?

Employees want their employers to meet higher CSR standards because they want to work for companies that are aligned with their own personal values. Ironically, while advocating for the greater good, their end goal is to feel better about themselves.

Employee Activism Tactics

Employee activists use a variety of tactics to bring attention to the social issues they care about and influence their employers to make changes that are aligned with the employees’ goals. Although news stories often focus on headline-grabbing actions, such as worker walkouts, research suggests that employee activists are much more likely to pursue quieter tactics that they believe to be less risky and more effective.

employee activism tactics

Following are some employee-led activism tactics:

  • Dissemination of company information
  • Talking with news media
  • Petition campaigns
  • Social media posts
  • Educational events
  • Internal coalition building
  • Issue-selling to executives
  • Coordination with activists in peer companies
  • Employee walkouts and sit-ins
  • Protests and demonstrations
  • Unsanctioned press conferences
  • Sabotage of company assets
  • Giving internal info to advocacy groups
  • Shareholder resolutions
  • Unsanctioned employee polls

Persuasive tactics, such as educational events and issue-selling to executives, aim to influence fellow employees and leadership through communication tools and approaches that are often less visible to people outside the organization and, therefore, less aggressive. Disruptive tactics, such as unsanctioned press conferences and sabotage, aim to unsettle companies’ operations and reputation, thereby pressuring leadership to yield to activists’ demands.

What Employers Can Do

Here are some strategies employers use to manage workplace activism effectively.

1. Have CSR Programs and Policies

Many employees genuinely want to help social and environmental causes, and they appreciate employers that invest in CSR programs that allow employees to contribute to the greater good and feel like they’re making a difference. Today’s socially conscious employees would rather see a sound CSR policy than a beautifully worded vision or mission statement that doesn’t translate into action.

2. Prioritize Dialogue

Don’t wait until your employees stage a walkout or quit before you listen and talk to them about the issues and causes they care about. Be proactive. Give them a forum in which to share ideas and concerns. You don’t have to capitulate to their every demand, but you should listen to them and try to understand their points of view.

3. Find a Connection

After listening to your employees, look for common ground. Try to find how the issues they care about connect with your organization’s values.

4. Focus on Values

Social and environmental activism is emotionally charged, so your employee activists are likely to be very passionate about the causes they support. Different perspectives and opinions can cause work disruptions. Remind your employees about the values they share and the principles set by the company’s CSR program and policies.

5. Cultivate Relationships With Stakeholders

Establish and maintain good relationships with internal and external stakeholders such as nonprofit organizations, industry associations and leading experts on salient social, political and/or environmental issues.

6. Support the Process

As much as activism is a collective experience, it is also an individual experience. Everyone is responsible for his or her journey, but you can create and encourage an environment in which employees can learn, share and collaborate with each other. Consider setting up employee resource groups to offer support and resources for employee activism in your company.

7. Do Not Rely Solely on HR

Corporate executives, not HR managers, should take the lead in establishing CSR programs and policies and communicating with employee activists. Without engaged senior leadership, CSR efforts are dead in the water.

8. Offer Volunteer Days

Some advocacy or civic events and volunteering opportunities take place during working hours. As part of their CSR programs, many employers provide paid time off to employees who wish to participate in peaceful events or volunteer for causes they support. Volunteer days enable them to give back to the community while maintaining a work-life balance.

Offer Volunteer Days

9. Match Employees’ Donations

Consider matching the financial donations that employees make to nonprofit organizations. These donations not only support employee-led activism but also can help your company develop a reputation for being socially responsible.

10. Let Employees Choose Their Holidays

Companies with a diverse workforce can honor all the cultural, religious and historical holidays by giving employees the flexibility to choose the holidays that are most important to them.

Final Word

Employee activism will continue to grow in reach and intensity in coming years. Employers that adapt to this new reality and engage employee activists effectively will be more successful at building healthy corporate cultures and avoiding unnecessary costs and disruptions to their organizations.

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