Nearly four in 10 employees (38 percent) say they have spoken up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over a controversial issue that affects society, according to the Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (UP)Rising report from Weber Shandwick, the communications and marketing services firm. Almost half of millennials say they have spoken out as employee activists, a rate significantly higher than that of Gen Xers (33 percent) and Boomers (27 percent).
The most common targets of their attention were other employees (46 percent) and top leaders at the organization (43 percent). Approximately one-third of those who took action were also hoping to get the attention of the general public (35 percent). They were less likely to want the attention of financial investors of the organization (12 percent) and the news media (11 percent).
Tech Employees Lead the Activist Trend
Tech employees seem to lead the trend. Google withdrew a proposed project with the Pentagon after encountering employee opposition. Employees have also protested against harassment and discrimination at the company.
Non-tech companies can also face employee protests. Most recently, Wayfair employees walked out of the Boston-based furniture company’s headquarters after the company refused to abandon a sale to a government contractor furnishing a federal detention center for migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border. Advocates and lawyers have reported unsafe and unsanitary conditions in some migrant shelters.
Corporations and non-profits have long asked employees to help promote their products and services, or to support their arguments in regulatory and legislative battles. There’s a flip side to recruiting employees as brand advocates. Employees who publically support their company are more likely to publically criticize it.
PR and management experts offer these steps to prepare for employee activism.
Accept employee involvement. Employees view their employer as more than just a paycheck, says Jon Mertz, founder of Activate World. They likely work for a particular business because the work aligns with their talents and the company aligns with their values. “Celebrate this, and honor their commitment.” Mertz says. “When activism begins, recognize it comes from a caring, personal place.”
Align values with business decisions. Companies encourage employee activism if they fail to “walk the talk.” “Companies have been slapping values statements on their walls and touting their employee engagement efforts for years,” says Shel Holtz, director of internal communication at Webcor. “If your values do not drive your business decisions, then they aren’t really your values, no matter how many posters are hanging on walls.”
Listen to your employees – before they form an activist group. Keep your finger on the pulse of your workforce. Consider surveys, small group meetings or even one-on-one phone calls. Consult a group of employees who represent a cross section of the workforce. Take them seriously.
Plan your response. Create a response protocol that outlines how to address an employee protest. Acknowledge employees’ concerns. Communicate the company’s reasoning for the controversial decision. Take employees’ views seriously. If the company violated the values it espouses, reverse course and explain how decisions will be handled better in the future.
Create a release valve. A forum, such as an online bulletin board or chat function, can let employees complain, debate company policies and let off steam, writes Prachi Juneja for the Management Study Guide. HR can monitor the forum and intervene if discussions go out of bounds.
Bottom Line: More employees are prepared to protest against their employers, especially if they believe its actions violate its stated values. Experts urge PR, HR and internal communications to prepare for the possibility of employee activism.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.