Employee Activism Is on the Rise

Workers feel empowered to protest their employers' business practices.

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek September 12, 2019
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​Workers are speaking up through social and traditional media when their employers take actions they don't agree with. Across the country, employees have staged strikes and protests to oppose their employers' business practices.

Walmart workers staged a 15-minute walkout and a moment of silence Aug. 7 to protest the sale of guns in the company's stores. The retailer's El Paso, Texas, and Southaven, Miss., stores had been the sites of deadly shootings within a week of each other. 

More than 1,000 Google employees signed a letter this year petitioning Google not to pursue contracts with federal immigration agencies, claiming those agencies are committing human rights violations.

And Wayfair employees walked off the job in June after learning of an agreement the home décor company made to furnish migrant detention centers. Prior to the walkout, more than 500 employees wrote to management asking it to cease doing business with BCFS, a nonprofit government contractor that operates a detention camp in Texas. Employees also met with Wayfair's CEO before resorting to the walkout.

The majority of U.S. employees, especially Millennials, believe they have the right to speak up about issues that impact society, according to a report from global communications and marketing firm Weber Shandwick. The research, conducted in partnership with KRC Research and United Minds consultancy, is based on an online survey conducted in March of 1,000 full-time workers at organizations with at least 500 employees.

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. workers said they have raised their voices to support or criticize their employers' actions regarding a controversial issue affecting society. Most hope to gain the attention of other employees (46 percent) and top leaders at their organization (43 percent). About 100 Google employees concerned about cyberbullying in 2018 lobbied their employer to "tighten rules of conduct for internal forums and hire staff to enforce them." And Amazon workers in July 2019 protested conditions at the company's fulfillment warehouse in Minnesota

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Communication]

These efforts can make a difference. Walmart, for example, announced it will no longer sell ammunition for short-barrel rifles and handguns. It also is asking customers to refrain from bringing guns into its stores.

Employee activism has been particularly prevalent in the tech industry where there is a higher percentage of young workers, said Julia Kanouse, CEO at the Illinois Technology Association in Chicago. Those employees, she said, "are kind of leading the charge."

"Your workforce is starting to care more about what you do to make the world a better place," she noted. "I also think the way work is being done and structured is allowing more of this [activism] because organization styles and structures are less hierarchical." Additionally, social media makes it easier for employees to assemble large groups on short notice and create a media buzz. 

While headline-grabbing action so far has been happening at large companies, Kanouse predicts it will also bubble up in smaller organizations. 

The days when a company's worth was measured in things are gone, she said, and employers know that. 

"Today, in a digital world, your worth is your people. … You have to put more emphasis on keeping them happy and paying attention to the issues they care about."

Employee Activism: U.S. Workers Flex Their Collective Muscle

7 Ways Employers Can Respond to Activism 

Here are some steps organizations can take to keep employee involvement from escalating into walkouts or other signs of protest.

1. Embrace activism as a positive force to propel your reputation and your business.
Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, credited "bottom-up, employee-led activism" from its employee resource groups (ERGs) with helping to make the company's hiring and recruiting practices more diverse and inclusive. Talking with the ERGs "turned into a rich, positive leadership and board discussion about the value of an inclusive culture and diverse workforce," he said. "Hiding away in your corner office and hitting your numbers" without paying attention to employees' concerns, he added, "is a short-term strategy."

2. Be clear about your corporate purpose and culture.
The Business Roundtable, an organization for chief executive officers of large U.S. corporations, released a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation in August. Signed by 181 CEOs, it outlines "a modern standard for corporate responsibility." The statement includes a commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion, protecting the environment, and dealing ethically with suppliers.

3. Learn what is on employees' minds.
"Finding out what is important to your employees, whether through casual conversations or a more formal survey, is a good way of engaging them in the process of creating a [corporate social responsibility] program," said Alessandra Cavalluzzi. She is the author of A Million Dollars in Change: How to Engage Your Employees, Attract Top Talent, and Make the World a Better Place (Wise Ink, 2018). Kanouse suggested that the CEO and members of the C-suite meet with people below the manager level to learn what those employees think the company should be taking a stand on to be a stronger corporate citizen.

4. Cultivate a culture of openness and transparency.
"If there's a logical argument to be made to do things differently and you're proactively connecting, I think you could prevent a lot of conflict and take action as an organization" by engaging with employees, Albrecht said. Kanouse suggested providing forums and other outlets so employees can express their concerns directly to leadership beyond submitting an online feedback form. If they don't have these forms of communication, employees are more likely to resort to seeking media attention, such as staging a protest.

5. Establish a response protocol.
Smart companies are thinking several steps down the road about how to respond if walkouts or similar actions occur, Kanouse said. "It's almost crisis-preparation planning and being fully prepared in terms of how the leadership team is going to communicate with each other in the case of a major walkout or strike," she said. "Who are the players involved and how do they interact and who takes the lead? [Knowing this] will allow you to react more quickly."

6. Clearly communicate your company's values.
Limeade held an all-company forum after employees expressed concern about a potential client whose product they thought did not align with Limeade's mission and values. "We didn't change everyone's mind, but the fact that we were willing to acknowledge there was a gray area" was important to employees, Albrecht said. "At the end of the day, we felt we could make that company a better place and that was good for the world," he said of the client.

7. Make your company's values part of the solution.
Some companies, Kanouse noted, offer paid time off for employee volunteerism, while others contribute funds to employees' chosen charities. In June, Limeade created an employee-giving foundation that allows workers to earn credits that are turned into a $50 donation to a charity of their choice. Limeade matches the amount. "We want people to give to what matters to them," Albrecht said.


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