On Purpose: The Age of Employee Activism
It is a scene that was once rare but has become all too common in corporate life. Angry protesters picket the company headquarters, waving banners and placards carrying messages of criticism and condemnation. TV news crews gather to cover the protest, making sure to prominently feature the company logo in the footage that runs on the evening news – or uploaded instantly to online channels.
But there’s a twist: the protesters are employees of the company itself, taking a vocal and public stand against the actions of the leadership that they believe are against their ethics and values. These employees feel no sense of fear in openly calling for the censure – even the resignation – of the people who pay their salaries. To them it is a moral crusade, one they are willing to risk everything for in the service of the greater good.
Scenes like these have played out in recent years at major American companies. Take Activision, the video game giant behind ‘Call of Duty’, where protesters called for the resignation of the Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick following allegations of rampant sexism and discrimination.
Netflix employees, angered by the company’s decision to back comedian Dave Chapelle, whose comedy special featured transphobic remarks, took to the streets outside the corporate headquarters in Los Angeles carrying signs that said “Hey Netflix: Do Better” and “Transphobia Is Not a Joke”.
At footwear giant Adidas, employees outlining what specific actions they wanted the company to take to improve representation and diversity for employees of colour. Disgruntled at the lack of opportunities internally (especially considering the company’s long history of using black artists and athletes in its advertising), the employees shut down the North American offices in Portland for three days and asked for the resignation of the Chief Human Resources Officer – which happened days later.
Facebook employee Frances Haugen diligently spent months gathering internal documentation about the company’s knowledge of how its products had adverse effects on everything from teen mental health to the use of its services by human traffickers – and then filed for federal whistleblower protection while leaking the documents to the Wall Street Journal. When asked why she did it, she said: “I never wanted to be a whistleblower. But lives were in danger.”
Activist employees like Ms Haugen and the employees of Activision, Adidas and Netflix pose a new and unique challenge to corporate leaders, unused to having such public and unflinching criticism come from inside their own organisations. Indeed 50% of workers say they are more likely now than a year ago to voice their objections to management or engage in workplace protest, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer study.
A further 61% say that they choose their employer based on their beliefs, with statements like “I will not work for a company if I disagree with their stand on social issues”, and “Organisations I choose to work for are one important way I express my opinion on social issues”.
For older leaders used to a ‘separation of church and state’, where employees were expected to keep their political and personal beliefs to themselves and not bring them into the workplace, this is a dizzying turn of events and one that many feel completely unequipped to handle.
All of this has been greatly exacerbated by the advent of Covid-19 and ‘The Great Resignation’. The pandemic has forced a reckoning among corporate employees who decided to quit their jobs in unprecedented numbers: according to one Microsoft survey, nearly 41% of workers were considering leaving their jobs.
And this is not limited to the United States: in the UK, 1 in 4 workers are considering quitting their jobs. Feeling fed up, overstressed and underpaid, employees are walking out of the door, unwilling to take any more, and confident that they would find a new job easily – one more in line with their values.
All of this reflects a huge shift in values: according to a report by McKinsey, 89% of employees say they want more purpose in their lives – with 70% saying their sense of purpose is largely defined by their work. But here’s the problem: whereas 85% of executives and upper management say that they are living their purpose at work, only 15% of frontline managers and frontline employees agree.
Left unchecked, this gulf between upper management and frontline workers can lead to serious divisions and resentment. All of which can add fuel to working conditions that threaten to burst into open conflict.
So, what should leaders do in this new age of employee activism? Here are four suggestions that may help.
- Listen: Sometimes the simplest thing corporate leaders can do is just listen to what their employees are trying to tell them. Whether it’s at corporate town halls or behind closed doors, take the time to hear employees’ concerns and truly understand them – don’t outsource the task to a corporate communications department through surveys and polls. Leaders need to display empathy and vulnerability in ways that may seem uncomfortable to them – but in the long run may help stave off an open employee revolt.
- Take swift and decisive action: If wrongdoing is exposed, leaders need to take swift and decisive action to right the wrongs. This doesn’t mean caving in and hastily dismissing someone wrongly. But leaders are expected to respond with a sense of urgency when exercising due diligence to respond to criticisms.
- Realise you don’t control the narrative any more: We are living in an age of radical transparency, when social media and platforms such as Glassdoor provide instant mediums of communication for employees to signal their discontent. Gone are the days of top-down PR where issuing a press release or blanket statement was enough to mollify critics. Now corporate communications teams and leaders need to have a crisis plan in place to deal with internal challenges, not just external ones.
- Help your employees find a sense of meaning in their work: This last suggestion may be the toughest but most important one. By thinking long-term about cultivating a sense of personal purpose in your employees, that links to the higher order purpose of your company in true and authentic ways, you can develop a sense of kinship and trust. This means employees can feel safe enough to speak truth to power, candidly and openly, before things get to a boiling point.
Doing so requires time, patience and genuine effort – not short-term exploitative tactics. But if the alternative is picket signs and picket lines outside your corporate HQ, then the investment may prove to be worth its weight in gold.