When Workers Take a Stand

Employee activism is on the rise. How can companies best manage their united voices?

This past spring, Amazon employees took a stand. Concerned about the lack of action on climate change, some 8,000 employees signed a petition and submitted a proposal to the tech giant’s board, challenging the company to prepare a public plan for “disruptions posed by climate change” and show how it would reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. 

Amazon rejected the initial proposal, but this will likely will not be the last word from employees on the issue. There is talk about making the company’s carbon footprint public, after years of secrecy.

From LGBTQ issues to #MeToo concerns, and calls for sustainability, ending gun violence, tackling climate change and much more, companies today confront a wilderness of issues that matter to their employees and customers—in a big way.

Employee activism is on the rise, and it can become a public nightmare for a company—if not handled right. Stock prices may drop. Employees may walk out. Boycotts can be staged. High-profile tweets can erode a brand.  

Handling the range of issues requires a lot of planning and strategy. Just winging it won’t cut it anymore. 

Planning for action

The first step for all companies? Listening, says McCorkindale.

“You have to have an architecture of listening in place, and you have to tear down the borders between employees and management,” she says. “You have to listen.”

But listening alone isn’t enough. It needs to be followed with action. 

While increasingly more companies are paying close attention to current events, and making sure to communicate with employees, crafting an effective response can be a struggle.

It’s only going to get more challenging, says Melissa Dodd, an associate professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication and Media.

When Dodd began researching employee activism in 2012, transgender bathrooms were a big issue, and she found the dynamics between employees, customers and companies interesting. But since then, many more issues have surfaced. What began as a small area of study on the part of Dodd has become her central area of research.

“The next wave will be corporate actions, and that includes where they are investing,” she says. “People will say, OK, you took a stance. And then they will dig deeper. There will be challenges to public stances that are not backed-up by actions.”

Along these lines, gun safety advocates are beginning to spotlight connections between financial institutions and firearms, Dodd says. And management at targeted financial institutions are having tough conversations about how to wrestle with the issue. Should banks decide to stop getting involved with lending to gun companies and individuals, it could cripple the entire industry.

Taking a stand matters

Taking public stances on issues—and backing them up with action—matters for employees and customers. But it’s important, too, for attracting talent.

Millenials entering their 30s now have years of work under their belts and are sought after for high-skilled positions. But they grew up in the digital area, are defined by social activism and social media connection, and have “rising expectations” for employers, says Dodd.

It’s important to them that companies engage with social issues, says Dodd. “There was a recent Forrester study that said 70 percent of millennial workers would rather work for a company that matched their values than a company that paid them more.”

Social media has been key for organizing and broadcasting messages. And, with so many online research tools available, people today can find out a lot about companies, in a way that was close to impossible just 15 years ago. 

In addition, a public perception that government can’t get things done fuels the rise of employee activism. Pressuring the government might lead to nothing. But pressing hard on companies can pay dividends.

The issue that jumpstarted Dodd’s interest in employee activism, transgender bathrooms, was highly controversial when she first began researching, she says. But thanks largely to public outcry against discrimination towards transgender people, more and more companies are beginning to support transgender people choosing their bathrooms.

Open conversations with top management

One key for employers: Understanding and articulating company values, says Denise Lee Yohn, a brand leadership expert and author of What Great Brands Do.

Effectively engaging with social issues “requires leaders to be proactive about articulating the company’s values and ensuring everybody understands them and the rationale behind them,” she says. “When issues come up, where corporate behavior is under question, use your values as a filter to process what you do. Having the core values will offset a lot of issues.”

Not only is engaging with issues potentially helpful for overall morale, but it can also motivate employees and introduce new customers to the brand, says John Cipriani, vice president in the research division of Global Strategies Group.

“There is a real opportunity for companies here to ask and enlist employees in ways that can help with the corporate mission.”

Global Strategies Group recently completed a survey that, among other things, found that two-thirds of employees said they would share positive news about the company. The same study, however, found that only 30 percent of employees believe their company’s communications are effective. When GSG dug deeper into the survey, the firm found that what employees really missed was simply more communications between senior management and the rest of the company.

Who to watch

Want a great example of who’s doing it right? Look no further than Patagonia, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines and Microsoft. Cipriani also championed Salesforce.

“Salesforce actually encourages their employees to share what they are doing to create positive change,” says Cipriani. “The CEO is very active, and encourages people to be activists, and communicates that to employees. The fact that the CEO is out there is a really powerful thing.”

Employee activism wasn’t much of a thing until the 21st century. But now it’s here to stay—and will undoubtedly evolve. Companies that effectively engage with social issues will have mechanisms for listening to employees, will stay on top of social issues as they emerge and flare up, and will respond to issues that make real sense to employees and the company. The foundation of it all is deciding upon core values, talking about them publicly, and using them to help navigate engagement with social issues.