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Organizational Tips to Guide Employee Activism

Imagine your employees walking off the job in protest of a company policy. Conversely, picture them as strong advocates in support of your company’s purpose. Either scenario is becoming more likely as employee activism continues to grow rapidly.

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Human resources and employee communication professionals have a responsibility to help their organizations understand the potential risks as well as the possible benefits of this trend.

Activism has grown rapidly over the past decade among consumers and investors, and more recently with socially conscious employees. Issues including gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, climate change, immigration, anti-capitalism, universal health care and automation of jobs ensure that employee activism is here to stay. And, in the run-up to the presidential election in the United States, those issues are top of mind for many.

Social media has made it easy for activist movements to grow. Consider this: Just a few years ago, many companies were trying to control employee access to the internet, but the ubiquity of the smartphone has moved us into a world where virtually every employee can broadcast live-streaming video to the world.

“Another axiom that has deteriorated is the notion that business and politics don’t mix,” said consultant Mike Klein of Changing the Terms, who has written extensively on employee activism. “Consumers, shareholders, employees and others are closely watching where a company targets its charitable giving, how it implements its employment policies, and what its stated values, purpose and priorities are. Employees want to work for companies that have some consistency in these areas and ideally one with a purpose that aligns with their own values.”

Why It Matters

Employee activism could affect a company’s ability to recruit and retain employees, and amid a tight labor market where employees can switch employers more easily, that can cost a company — a lot. When a company loses an employee, it must spend money on recruiting and training, and productivity is lost while a new employee is brought up to speed. In addition, there could be serious negative effects on a company’s stock price and direct sales due to reputation damage.

“It’s important to start communicating company values in the recruitment stage and carry those messages right on through onboarding and beyond,” said Jennifer Russo, director of corporate communications at Banner Health, which employs 50,000 employees. “Messages to employees need to be clear, genuine, warm, supportive and in context.”

2019 Examples
Many companies became suddenly aware of employee activism after “the Wayfair Walkout” in 2019 where more than 500 employees walked off the job in response to the furniture manufacture selling products to migrant detention camps. Another example of headline-grabbing employee activism occurred last year when hundreds of Nike employees in Beaverton, Ore., marched out in an effort to push Nike management to give more support to female employees and female athletes. In 2018, as many as 20,000 Google employees worldwide walked off the job for a day over concerns about the company’s sexual harassment policies.

"It’s important to start communicating company values in the recruitment stage and carry those messages right on through onboarding and beyond." – Jennifer Russo, director of corporate communications at Banner Health

As employee activism continues to rise, many corporations are reevaluating how they are dealing with this new reality. Some companies want to avoid being blindsided by a reputation-damaging walkout and others are looking for ways to create advocates to promote deeply-held company values.

“Upfront knowledge of company values will help ensure building a community of employee advocates, creating a culture of collaboration and human relationships, while also providing the opportunity of empowerment, which will foster your employees to become effective advocates, influencers and thought leaders,” said Roger Rickard, president and founder of Voices in Advocacy, which helps organizations create advocates.

Some companies attract advocates by the nature of their business.

“First Solar associates have a passion for sustainability and for making a positive impact on our environment — both inside our operations and in the communities where we live and work,” said Caroline Stockdale, executive vice president of HR & Communications of First Solar, one of the largest manufacturers of solar panels in the world. “Our ‘Sustainability Ambassadors’ program is a global associate-driven initiative that leverages that passion and ensures we are walking the sustainability talk. Our vision, ‘Leading the world’s sustainable energy future,’ is about leading by example. To us, employee activism is about providing both careers and volunteer opportunities that make a real, meaningful and lasting difference.”

Seven Steps to Consider

If your company has not thought about taking a proactive role to address employee activism, here are some steps to consider:

1) Hear your employees. The first step is to understand how your employees feel about specific social issues. Make sure your employees feel heard, not just listened to. Do you have appropriate feedback channels in place to capture employee opinions regarding social change? Does your employee engagement survey capture this data?

2) Use available technology. Technology is an important part of today’s workforce and integrating new methods to reach and engage employees within the company will create trust between employers and employees. Use surveys and message boards to foster open communication with employees. Does your intranet allow for comments? Are you using enterprise collaboration software such as Yammer?

3) Audit company purpose and values. Reexamine your company’s purpose and values statements to ensure they reflect the current thinking of your company. Do they need a refresh? In an effort to redefine the role of the corporation, and perhaps proactively address activist issues, the Business Roundtable, an association of the top CEOs in the U.S.  published its “Purpose of a Corporation” statement last August. CEOs representing 181 Fortune 500 companies signed the manifesto declaring that corporate goals were now to provide value to customers, employees, suppliers, local communities and stockholders. The statement reversed a decades-old trend of serving the interests of shareholders first and foremost.

4) Ensure messages are aligned. Make sure your high-level company messages align with your stated company values. Ensure your messaging is consistent in all channels that touch employees, starting with recruit and onboarding materials. Inconsistent messages can destroy credibility and trust between management and employees.

5) Look for opportunities to embrace employee activism. Are there opportunities to create and support employee groups focused that reflect the values of your company? Can corporate giving programs and employee volunteer efforts be focused on the social change areas that employees are interested in?

6) Communicate corporate responsibility. Many companies are already doing a lot to support their local communities. However, often companies don’t do a good job communicating those activities to their own employees. Communication drives perception, and perception becomes reality. Does your company publish a corporate responsibility report and make it available to employees? In an online self-selected survey of HR and communication professionals conducted recently by Paul Barton Communications, only about half of the 41 respondents said their organizations produce a corporate responsibility report. With the right information, employees can be an organization’s best advocates. Make sure your employees are aware of the good deeds your organization is doing.

7) Plan a response. Companies need to be prepared in case things do go wrong. Every company should have a crisis communication plan and those plans should address employee activism. Many crisis communication plans were written years ago and do not address the possibilities of activism by their own employees. HR and corporate communication professionals should work together to determine most likely scenarios and devise appropriate messaging and the most effective channels to communicate those messages. Working together, HR and communications professionals can help steer their companies through the new reality of employee activism.

About the Authors

Paul Barton is a business communication expert. Matthew Mitschang is a student intern.


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