Will we see more or less employee activism in this new decade?

Group of people sat around tables having a discussion
Image from Virgin
Lizzie Heighway
by Lizzie Heighway
10 February 2020

Employee organising is not new. Trade unions have been helping workers organise themselves around employment issues for a long time, and whistle-blowing, such as Susan Fowler’s high profile exposing of sexual harassment at Uber, is far from a new practice.

What we are increasingly seeing, however, is employees bringing their views into the workplace and protesting about things their company is doing that affect wider society, not just them – even if this risks their position. And the attention given to recent walkouts, at Google, Amazon and Wayfair to name a few examples, shows that the actions of employees can have an impact.

Why are we seeing more employee activism? 

Almost four in 10 workers may consider themselves to be activists, having spoken up to support or criticise their employer’s actions over a controversial issue that affects society. Why is that? I don’t think it’s idealistic to claim that the fundamental driver is the dramatically increased awareness of our planet’s fragility, and the urgent desire for all major stakeholders to act.

Led by the younger generations of the workforce, the strength of conviction that workplaces should actively contribute to social and environmental debates and be a beacon of best practice is definitely driving the employee-led action we are seeing. 

Both consumers and employees are demanding more of business. And businesses are responding – environmental commitments, community investments, diversity and inclusion and other programmes are becoming mainstream business priorities, and more holistic purpose statements and organisational values are being embedded. While it is no longer acceptable for businesses to do nothing, by increasing the profile of this work and by allowing employees to have a voice in conversations they have previously kept outside of the workplace, companies set expectations and leave themselves much more open to scrutiny. 

Unfortunately there’s often a significant gap between employee expectations and employer action, which worryingly executives are not always aware of – with many employees seriously considering an employer’s social and environmental track record before applying for a role, and placing more importance on purpose at work than certain benefits, this disgruntlement leads to action.

Employees have the tools to act. Technology and social media allows employees to connect with each other and get traction in the outside world like never before, blurring professional and personal boundaries. Where employees don’t feel listened to internally, they can and will escalate their views. With CEO activism also on the rise, is it surprising that employees feel justified following suit?

What should employers do?

1. Take action 

Employees don’t just want words, they want action. This includes companies putting money and resources behind their commitments and prioritising ‘doing the right thing’ over short term profit gains. 

2. Listen to employees

Employees are turning to activism when there’s a breakdown in trust and they don’t feel listened to. Listening to what employees care about and ensuring an organisation’s leadership is in touch with employees’ views not only mitigates against potential relational issues, it can help companies empower their people to act in a way that supports the organisation. Businesses can no longer do nothing and say nothing, so it makes sense to listen to and involve your workforce. Plus, with a serious push for business to create value for more than just shareholders, there’s no better time to meaningfully engage your workforce, a crucial stakeholder group.

Interestingly much of the high-profile employee activism to date has been carried out by highly skilled workers, and in industries where the demand for skills is outstripping supply. To create a truly equitable workplace, employers should ensure they are listening to everyone, not just those who are posing the biggest threat and those who aren’t fearing the consequences of speaking out.

3. Have an open culture and honest dialogue

Engagement will only be effective if your organisational culture is open and employees feel confident voicing their opinions. Leaders who don’t feel they can be challenged risk making their employees despondent, or even bitter. 

Navigating when and how business should be involved in environmental and social issues can be tricky – there are subjectivities and cultural sensitivities to consider, or sometimes the necessary changes would have a serious impact on parts of the workforce, and this needs to be managed. Honest dialogue, acknowledging where thorny areas are, listening to concerns and clearly communicating a plan of action can be enough to retain the trust of employees and prevent an escalation towards activism. As long as action follows of course!

What’s on the horizon?

Probably more employee activism! Arguably employees are a key force in holding businesses to account, and they will only take on a greater role as the gap between employee expectation and employer action persists, warnings about the state of the planet, social and wealth inequality become starker, and more tools to connect us and elevate our voice become available. However, opinion does differ on the role employees and businesses should play in the social and environmental debates of our time. When do you think employees are justified in taking action against their employer? Tell us below.

100% Human at Work is one of the core initiatives of The B Team. Virgin Unite has supported the initiative by helping with resourcing the program, building the network and helping to drive and engage in thought leadership.