Employee Activism: Where are the Guardrails?

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member, Dan Schawbel. Employee activism has been on the rise in recent years. Is your organization equipped to handle it?

Today’s divisive political climate has given rise to employee activism. Almost every single day you’ll see another example of a group of employees speaking out about the decisions their employer makes on a variety of political and social topics affecting them such as global warming, criminal justice reform, war, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One reason why employee activism is more prominent in today’s workplace is because employees increasingly want to work for companies that share their values, views, and beliefs. Employees want their companies to make a positive difference in society, not just a profit, and some profit motives can go against an employee’s value system. 

The surge in employee activism is being led by the youth. One study found that over a third of employees have spoken up to support or criticize their employer’s actions over an issue that affects society. Almost half of Millennials have spoken out compared to only 27% of Baby Boomers.  Our own Gen Z research tells us that they are most encouraged to do their best work when they feel their ideas, projects, and contributions are valued by the organization and its mission.

There are countless examples of employee activism just in the past month alone. Fast food workers in Florida from fifty different chains went on strike to advocate for more health security and higher pay during the pandemic. And, employees at meat-processing plants are taking leave or quitting for fear of contracting  COVID-19 in facilities where their colleagues have already contracted it.  

Employer responses have been all over the map. Some employers have shut down modes of communication to quash free speech and even fired employees for voicing their dissent. Conversely, other employers have taken the opportunity to be more open, encouraging employees to speak out about corporate practices and perhaps, even more importantly, listening to them and changing policies to provide safety equipment and paid leave. 

Many companies haven’t had to worry this much about employee activism in the past, and have no playbook for how to handle it. They need one. We know that there will be more activism in the future, especially with this political climate in an election year as the world returns to work following the pandemic.

A lot of the decision comes down to culture. If your company has an open culture that promotes psychological safety and collaboration, employees will feel secure in expressing their views. Even if employers do support free speech, they still need to be prepared for employee disagreements, and protests, and have a plan for what to do when they occur. On the other hand, if employees know they will be criticized, ostracized, and potentially fired for sharing their beliefs, then they will be afraid to speak up and may, as the economy improves, search for employment elsewhere.  

One thought on “Employee Activism: Where are the Guardrails?

Please share your comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.