How to Lead in the Age of Employee Activism

Responding to employee activism at the workplace is not an easy task for any business leader. Here are some ideas on how to avoid common leadership pitfalls.

How to Lead in the Age of Employee Activism
How to Lead in the Age of Employee Activism

Businesses are faced with a dilemma when it comes to activism in the workplace. On one hand, your employees are free individuals who can speak their minds and act as they please as long as they don’t violate national laws or company policies. On the other hand, if many of them hold views that are politically or socially controversial or hotly debated in the public domain, you may be unable (or unwilling) to extend your support to them – especially if that support is likely to affect your shareholder interests, brand reputation, or profitability.  

How should companies deal with the trend of employee activism, and how can they balance their responsibilities to shareholders with their responsibilities to society? Let’s find out.

What is employee activism and why does it occur?

Employee activism can take many forms. This includes participating in rallies or protests, writing letters to politicians, or initiating discussions and/or signing petitions at work about contentious topics like social justice, human rights, climate change, etc.

People today want to work for socially conscious employers. According to the World Economic Forum, 60% of those changing jobs are looking for a better fit with company values even amid the pandemic. This is more significant in light of the Big Quit – the worldwide phenomenon of people leaving their jobs en masse post-COVID lockdowns.

Clearly, the pandemic changed many people's outlook on their careers. In addition to benefits like flexi-time or unlimited paid time off, workers are looking for employers and job roles that reflect values like ethics, sustainability, and social impact.

In the Edelman Trust Barometer, 86% of respondents said they expected CEOs to speak out on societal issues publicly, and 68% thought that CEOs should actively step in when the government fails to do so. This means that employees are more "belief-driven" than ever before and are motivated not just by salaries but also by social and personal values.

Leading in the Age of Employee Activism

Different companies have different policies on whether they allow employees to speak publicly about controversial issues, which can make things complicated. However, on the whole, leaders need to remember that the economic clout their companies wield means that they have an outsize voice and influence and that employee activism.

Everyone has their views
Everyone has their views

Employee Activism Examples from Recent History

A couple of years ago, US-based e-commerce firm Wayfair faced a public relations nightmare when employees called for a boycott of the company's products over its decision to continue supplying furniture to an inhumane immigrant holding facilities.

In addition, Amazon's heavy-handed crackdown on employee activists has only spurred, and not halted, efforts to unionise – even leading to massive resignations.

Allowing Employee Activism v/s Keeping the Workplace Neutral

If experience has taught us anything, it is that 'not doing anything’ doesn't equal being 'neutral.'

In a viral blog post back in 2020, Brian Armstrong wrote that Coinbase employees should focus on the company's mission and not comment on broader societal issues unrelated to it. However, soon after this statement, over 60 employees left the company.

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So, how can companies and leaders better manage workplace activism?

How to Respond to Workplace Activism

1. Understand how social issues connect with your organisation's purpose and values.

If the issue your people care about is related to your company’s mission and values, it might be a good opportunity for you to support the cause.

Addressing major societal issues can both earn you recognition from your community and increase employee morale. However, do ensure that the cause has an integral connection to your brand, and is not just something you support just for free PR.

2. Talk through assumptions and judgments about activism

If you do not understand or agree with the issue at hand, talk to your people and ask them questions. Asking questions that reflect on why people believe what they do — instead of merely trying to argue against them — can open up a new level of understanding.

Perhaps one of your fears about letting your employees do their own thing is that it would reflect poorly on you or make you look bad. If you're not very familiar with a particular corporate activism cause, it may seem like something impractical or politically charged.

Most of these apprehensions will dissipate once you sit down and think about why your team would be interested in doing something like that.

Find out what really matters to employees
Find out what really matters to employees

3. Find out what really matters to employees

Employees won't necessarily tell the company leadership what they care about, especially if they don't feel like they can be honest in their feedback.

And, an annual employee survey doesn't always get to the heart of what employees think and feel. Not being able to express political and social views can lead to job dissatisfaction.

Whether it's giving back through volunteerism or working toward a specific cause that everyone is passionate about, organisations need to understand what their employees want beyond just offering profit sharing, paid time off, and flexible schedules.

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4. Don't claim that the organisation is apolitical.

Leaders who claim to be apolitical are taking a political stand, whether they want to or not. They may try to pass off their inaction as neutrality, but this is actually a risky move.

Inaction equates to a position, just as much as action does. Leaders who think they can maintain neutrality are fooling themselves — it leaves the rest of us guessing at what they really think.

And leaders who have no confidence in their ability to manage conflict, corporate activism cases (or handle conflict gracefully) should consider this before remaining neutral on divisive issues.

5. Be prepared for the fallout when you can’t make everyone happy

Whether your company takes a stand on the issue or not, you cannot satisfy everyone. Some people may still feel that you handled things badly. So, be prepared for everything and put down some guidelines for how people can express themselves and where the line has to be drawn.

As a leader, your job is to look out for the needs of your people when making decisions. You must let them know how and why you've made the decision to support the cause (or not). It's also important to listen to their ideas, acknowledge ideas and suggestions that have merit, and demonstrate a willingness to change your mind if needed.

Open communication at work
Open communication at work

To Sum Up…

A company is a reflection of its employees. In the end, it's always best to have an open line of communication with your team.

No matter how hot-button a topic may be, there's no right and wrong way to approach it, but diplomacy is essential.

As a leader, when you address the topic of employee activism, you need to be impartial, candid, and respectful at all times — no matter what your personal feelings on the matter may be.

No matter which path is taken, though, business leaders should have an open mind and approach the entire process with an attitude of positivity rather than one of fear and anger or dismissal.

Are you an HR or business head, an entrepreneur, or a team leader? If the well-being of your team is a priority, Manah can be your go-to partner. Do check out our services:

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