One way that employees speak up for ethical practices within their organization is through employee activism. Unlike traditional strikes and collective bargaining practices, which are centered around improving employees’ rights, conditions, and salaries, employee activism focuses on big picture societal issues. This, in part, has to do with a generational difference in expectations for employers. In the Forbes article, “Why Is Employee Activism on the Rise?” author, Laura Coulman argues, “Millennials-and Gen Z not far behind them-care far more for the big picture than they do personal interests. The expectation now is that the businesses they buy from and work for think of society and environment alongside profit, and make a meaningful contribution to people, communities, society and the economy.” In other words, younger generations are more inclined to hold employers accountable for actions that effect society at large.
Weber Shandwick, KRC Research, and United Minds teamed up to study employees’ awareness and perceptions of employee activism in their study, “Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (UP)Rising.” Notably, the study demonstrated a shift in attitudes and practices from one generation to the next. While only 65% of Baby Boomers believed that employees have the right to speak up against their employer, 76% of Gen Xers and 82% of Millennials believed in this right. Furthermore, only 27% of Baby Boomers and 33% of Gen Xers indicated that they “have spoken up to support or criticize employer’s actions over a controversial issue that affects society,” while 48% of Millennials reported having done so. Clearly, employee activism is on the rise with growing support among the younger workforce.
Walmart, Amazon, and Wayfair are among well known organizations that have relatively recently been challenged by employee activists. In May of 2019, over five thousand Amazon employees signed a petition over a lack of climate change mitigation efforts and a concern over facial recognition software that could marginalize minorities. That June, Wayfair employees walked off the job to protest an agreement to furnish migrant detention centers in Texas, and on August 7, 2019, some Walmart employees had a 15-minute walk-out over their concerns regarding firearms being sold in stores. These are just a few well known examples out of many cases of employee activism.
With trends indicating that employee activism will become increasingly common, how should organizations respond? For answers, we turn to the SHRM article, “Employee Activism is on the Rise,” by Kathy Gurchiek. Gurchiek’s first piece of advice is for employers to “Embrace activism as a positive force to propel your reputation and your business.” Employee activists are powerful forces of change. They can be instrumental in implementing new practices when employers recognize their concerns and enlist their support in making changes form the bottom-up. Gurchiek also advises companies to clearly communicate their values and to make those values part of the solution. As discussed above, employees are becoming increasingly concerned about how their employers’ practices impact society. Companies should be forthright and honest about their commitment to issues such as diversity and inclusion, climate change, and ethical supply chains.
Finally, Gurchiek emphasizes the importance of cultivating a culture of transparency where employees are able to share their concerns. Organizations should have formal and reliable mechanisms (such as an employee hotline) for employees at all levels to make their suggestions and concerns known to leaders. The article points out that, “If they don’t have these forms of communication, employees are more likely to resort to seeking media attention, such as staging a protest.” Employee activists are increasingly likely to seek the public’s attention when their voices are ignored by those at the top. This can seriously damage the organization’s reputation and wellbeing. Instead, employers must welcome feedback from employees at all levels to strengthen their organization and its commitment to doing what is right. With an increased emphasis on how organizations impact society at large, employee activism is here to stay. How will your organization harness its power to bring about positive change?