Employee Activism: what is it and why is it on the rise?

February 25, 2020 ProgressionHR

Workers now feel empowered to protest their employers’ business practices. Yet Employee Activism can be a positive force for business prosperity – if leadership can find opportunities to welcome and embrace it, rather than run from it. So let’s take a look at what Employee Activism is, why it’s on the rise and how employers can respond to it.

What is Employee Activism?

Employee Activism describes the actions taken by workers to speak out for or against their employers on controversial issues that impact society. Employee activists focus on campaigning to change their company’s policies, with a focus on social activism – actions performed intentionally to generate social change. These employees describe themselves as woke*.

Is this the beginning of a new era?

It may feel like it, but Employee Activism – employees organising – is nothing new. We’ve previously called this organising by a different name: unions. Trade unions have, of course, played an active role in protecting the rights of workers for centuries – and whistleblowing is still used in calling out dodgy professional practice. It’s how employees are organising today that has taken new form and meaning.

Why is this happening?

To start with, there’s been a shift in generational values. Millennials – and Gen Z just behind them – care more about the big picture than they do self-interest. The expectation now is that the businesses they work for and buy from must think of society and the environment as well as profit. They must make meaningful contributions to people, communities, society and the economy.

How are activists doing this?

Employees are speaking up through social and traditional media when their employers take actions they don’t agree with. Using the power and availability of digital platforms and social media to make their voice heard, employee activists of this generation differ from employee action of the past in two important ways: one, they’re speaking out for social change instead (and often at the potential expense) of their personal position; two, they’re whistleblowing as a group, not individuals. Social media makes it easier for employees to assemble large groups on short notice and create a media buzz.

*What does woke mean in 2020?

Woke is a slang term that has entered the mainstream lexicon from some varieties of a dialect called African American Vernacular English (sometimes called AAVE). In AAVE, awake is often rendered as woke, as in, “I was sleeping, but now I’m woke.” ‘Woke‘ is increasingly used as a byword for social awareness.

9 Ways Employers Can Respond to Activism

Don’t be an ostrich

Employee Activism might sound like a scary term for someone trying to run a business, but it’s actually an opportunity for organisations to bring their values to life in the real world. The alternative is a ‘head in the sand’ approach to the concerns of your employees, which not only threatens engagement, but can lead to serious consequences. Here are some steps organisations can take to keep employee involvement from escalating into walkouts or other signs of protest.

Be clear about your corporate purpose and culture

For example, do you have a commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion, protecting the environment, and dealing with ethical suppliers?

Recognise that employees see themselves as citizens of the company

Any business leader interested in embracing employee activism should remember that employees today rarely view their employer as just a paycheck. Individuals have many choices today in how they make money, especially in a strong job market. The employees working for a particular business are likely there because the work aligns with their talents and the company aligns with their values. They have a vested interest and care how the business presents itself to the world.

Check your company’s values

Revisit your values and leadership philosophy based on what you and others are experiencing. Do your values align with your employees? Failing to do this will leave you out-of-step with employees who will eventually feel the misalignment, which could trigger action.

Make your company’s values part of the solution

Some companies offer paid time off for employee volunteerism, while others contribute funds to employees’ chosen charities.

Learn what’s on employees’ minds

Finding out what is important to your employees, whether through casual conversations or formal surveys, is a good way of engaging staff in the process of creating a corporate social responsibility programme.

Cultivate a culture of openness and transparency

Provide forums and other outlets so employees can express their concerns directly to leadership other than submitting an online feedback form. If they don’t have these channels of communication, employees are more likely to resort to seeking media attention, such as staging a protest.

Foster open conversations about difficult topics

When company values are firmly in place, find ways to start and continue dialogue around community, political or people issues that could be important to your employees. For example, if the business is heavily staffed with women, employees may like to see the company become vocal on issues directly impacting women. These conversations could take place during staff meetings, through an organised event, at a community forum, or in a variety of other ways. The important thing is that the conversations start, and leadership is committed to listening and acting.

Establish a response protocol

Smart companies are thinking ahead about how to respond if walkouts or similar actions occur. They plan and are prepared in terms of how the leadership team is going to communicate with each other in the case of a major walkout or strike. Knowing who the players involved are, how they interact and who takes the lead will allow leadership to react more quickly.

Build employee goodwill over time

Any time leaders can demonstrate they’ve listened to the issues impacting their employees, these leaders build goodwill. This goodwill, built over time through a variety of actions, will prove to be powerful when employees disagree with leadership.

Are you prepared?

Since it seems unlikely that only big, iconic brands are at risk from Employee Activism, it makes sense for all organisations to take this seriously and start putting a contingency plan together. This new kind of employee, organising around uncomfortable social issues that have high personal value and cost, is only going to grow as younger generations stand by their beliefs, and use their collaborative abilities and social media to hold businesses and their leaders to account. The question is, will you be ready?



Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up today, to receive news and updates from ProgressionHR.

You have Successfully Subscribed!