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The Rise Of Workplace Activism

Michael Corleone famously said, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business”. That does not seem to be the case anymore for many companies.

Wayfair recently had an employee walkout over the company selling beds to immigrant detention centers. Google had a large scale (20,000 employees) walkout/protest over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims.

Are these random occurrences or is a trend emerging?

The trend is here - welcome to the age of workplace activism.

Two trends are converging that will make the workplace more political.

Companies are increasingly embracing social causes as a way of building their brand and connecting with their consumers.

  • Nike is partnering with Colin Kaepernick.
  • Gillette is trying to redefine masculinity with its “Best A Man Can Be” campaign.
  • Dick’s Sporting Goods are dropping assault-style weapons from their stores and starting to promote gun control.
  • Tom’s Shoes and Bombas have built their business models around combining charitable giving tied to consumer purchases.
  • A broad spectrum of companies are supporting the June 2019 Pride Month.

Deloitte did a study showing that companies are increasingly looking to increase their investment in social causes, especially in firms that are looking to attract and recruit a younger workforce.

For businesses, it’s important to stay relevant, said Erica Volini, who co-authored the Deloitte report. “Being silent today, it doesn’t work. Because being silent is being viewed as being apathetic. That’s not acceptable from employees, and that’s what they’re craving.”

Meanwhile, while companies continue to embrace social causes, their employees are becoming more active. What we are seeing is that employees are now speaking out and holding their management to task for policies and practices that they deem unfair or wrong. This activism is a significant trend because companies now have to consider their employees as key stakeholders.

Povaddo did a study on employee attitudes towards social causes and found:

  • A clear majority of employees, fifty-seven percent, believe their CEOs should be more vocal on key social issues.
  • Forty-five percent of all employees indicate that the actions a company takes on important societal issues impacts their employment decisions;
  • Twenty-seven percent think that employees should pressure their CEOs to be more vocal on social issues; and,
  • Finally, fifteen percent of all employees are dedicated activists – employees who regularly consume news on politics, expect their CEOs to be more vocal, and expect to work for a company that makes meaningful attempts at addressing social issues.

Welcome to the new world of work. Sorry, Michael, business is now very personal.

What does this all mean?

Companies have to realize that embracing a social mission is not a marketing exercise. The company will have to embrace and live the values that they espouse. Companies cannot put forward Pride Month support while they still have LBGTQ discrimination or harassment in their workplace. Yes, this will be hard to manage for a global enterprise with tens of thousands of employees. But watch out when someone on Glassdoor or Twitter points out the hypocrisy they see.

Companies also have to expect that their employees are going to become more vocal and more active. Employees are expecting (maybe demanding) a voice in the societal issues and causes supported by their organization. Ignoring them will come at tremendous reputational risk. This activism is going to increase as more millennia, and Generation Z employees move into management (I could not resist throwing in at least one Millennial jab before completing the article).

Employees need to exercise prudence and good judgment on how far they can push their management. I find it interesting that the rise in employee activism has taken place during the booming economy that has a tight talent market. I wonder if employees will be so strident and vocal during a recession period of layoffs and cutbacks.

Only time will tell.

Sources for this blog:

Agents For Change - Why You Can expect More Businesses To Embrace Social Missions

30 Brands That Are Celebrating Giving Back


The Rise Of The Activist Employee

Corporate America's POV