People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2021

From the Executive Editor

What do employees get to decide about an organization’s strategy, policies and culture? It’s not a conversation that offers a tidy ending. Employee activism is here to stay—technologically and generationally.

By David Reimer
From the Executive Editor

Is Work a Democracy?

In a conversation this week with the CHRO of a major multinational, he was discussing management’s challenges with trying to decide if employees would be required to be vaccinated in order to come back to the office. “We are a science-based company,” he told me, “and we encourage independent decision-making throughout our organization. But suddenly every employee is a virologist, and absolutely confident in their contradictory positions.” In the end, he thinks they will leave choice to individuals.

What do employees get to decide about an organization’s strategy, policies and culture? That question would have seemed odd if not unthinkable a mere decade ago. And yet, a half-century from now, someone writing a history of the corporation will undoubtedly feel compelled to devote several chapters to this moment we are living in right now. Company positions on Georgia voting legislation, China’s solar panel production or the fashion industry’s environmental impact have been shaped and driven increasingly by employees’ demands for change. 

On the one hand, as Glassdoor’s CEO Christian Sutherland-Wong reminds us, employees have more faith in their companies than they do in government and other traditional institutions of authority. On the other hand, when it comes to tackling challenges that extend far beyond the walls of the workplace, at times employees’ positions jar against company strategies or business models. 

For years we’ve been telling our employees to bring their whole selves to work. Suddenly, organizations find themselves backpedaling and scrambling to define just what they mean by whole self, and what limitations or guardrails can be placed around that relationship.

This issue of People + Strategy tackles these challenges, and you will find that our contributors do not all agree.

You’ll read an experienced Fortune 150 CEO declaring that, “Too many companies are allowing employees to think that the company is a vehicle for action on social justice.” His position is immediately countered on the next pages by the co-executive director of coworker.org, who says, “The workplace is another way in which you can wrestle with democracy.” 

The former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tells us that one of the defining characteristics of leadership is knowing when to say, “I’ll take your input, but this isn’t a democracy. There is no vote, and even if 75 percent of you disagree with me, I’m going to make a decision that I think is the right decision.” Meanwhile in an interview, the Vice Chair of the Alphabet Workers Union (and Google software engineer) argues against the leader-as-decision-maker model, “These are such complex problems that the best solutions are going to come out of a group of people with different perspectives.”

We have also included a new feature: a data snapshot of what executives, HR professionals and the average American worker expect from the organization in terms of taking stances on social, environmental or political issues. The answer: it’s a hot mess. 

Yet, almost everyone in these pages agrees that it is crucial to establish the right social architecture within your organization, one that clarifies where differing voices and viewpoints can fit within the ecosystem. It’s the how of it that gets hard.

In the interest of driving to pragmatic outcomes, we engaged with a range of top executives, HR leaders and board directors. Their writing and interviews can be loosely grouped into four main threads:

  1. Establishing the different voices in the conversation: management, employees and boards.
  2. Defining what organizations have learned about setting up better sensing, speaking and listening cultures over this past 18 months, a period when more organizations were having harder conversations than most had ever encountered.
  3. Understanding how some of today’s best thinkers are reconsidering the structure—or restructure—of the job itself as the basic binding agent of the employer-employee contract.
  4. Challenging how boards of directors are developing themselves in the face of employee activism.

This is not a U.S.-only challenge, and you’ll find contributions here from different parts of the globe. Nor is it a conversation that offers a tidy ending so we can move on to the next challenge. Employee activism is here to stay—technologically and generationally. 

Strategy execution was never easy, and when The Business Roundtable published its 2019 statement redefining the emphasis of business from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, responses ranged from eye-rolling to cautious optimism. The crises of the past year have at some level rendered that formal statement moot. Employees are stakeholders, and they are stepping up as activists. How will HR executives help organizations engage with, learn from and lead them?   

David Reimer
Executive Editor