“We are living in unusual times!” exclaimed Ros Hunt who, until recently was Director of Communications at Coca Cola European Partners with a particular focus on purpose, sustainability, and campaigning on key issues. Ros joined us at the simplysummit in November 2020 where she was sharing her experiences of employee activism and advocacy. 

“It’s hard to recall a time where there have been as many issues for employees to be outspoken about: there is intense political upheaval across the globe; we are facing a climate emergency and major human rights issues. On top of all that, we are dealing with the impact of a global pandemic.” And, as Ros says, “We are seeing issues put on the map for communicators by celebrity campaigners in a matter of hours, sometimes minutes,” whether that is #MeToo, ethical fashion, Black Lives Matter or ending child food poverty.

It used to be the place of the unions and works councils fighting for fairness at work, for safety and equality, but employees today are as likely to speak out for a social cause that goes way beyond their own workplace. It’s an interesting landscape for communicators.

Can businesses step into a moral vacuum?

Ros continues, “As trust in governments declines, employees are increasingly looking to brands and businesses to fill the void in championing particular causes. In the well-regarded Edelman Trust Barometer survey, it showed that 75% of people want their employers to take action, rather than wait for governments to tackle the issues of the day. Study after study shows that employees are keen to work for companies that share their values and keen to back their employers if there is a cause they believe in.”

“Organisations that fail to come up with an answer to employee activism will certainly find it harder to attract, hire and retain the people they need for the future.”

The steady democratisation of the workplace, the proliferation of social media and the deployment of digital workplace tools together create the perfect environment for employees to speak up and out – both for and against what their employers stand for.

On Glassdoor we read, “Younger workers are most passionate about employer commitment to hot-button topics: 75 per cent of those ages 18-34 expect their employer to take a stand on important issues affecting the country and their constitutional rights, including immigration, equal rights, and climate change, more than any other age group.“

Gen Z are biggest activists

A recent study from global PR firm Weber Shandwick found that four in ten workers had spoken up to support or criticise employers’ actions over a controversial issue that affects society. Furthermore, in the Future of Work report from law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, it suggests that 80% of companies expect to see a rise in employee activism, going on to say that, “Across all sectors and geographies workers are becoming more vocal in articulating their views – about the workplace, their employer and about wider social issues – and increasingly holding organisations to account, enabled and amplified by social media.”

Ros agrees: “As Gen Z enter the workforce this phenomenon is likely to grow. They are a generation comfortable with social media and petition tools; they are used to being heard and having a voice and they will bring this into the workplace too.”

They are a generation who want to work for employers who make them proud, and they want the time they spend at work to be fulfilling. In today’s world, purpose increasingly matters over profit.

Purpose over profit

Ros again, “Purpose is a bit of a comms buzz word, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that purpose-driven organisations significantly outperform those that solely drive for profit.

A clearly defined and understood purpose gives employees a decision-making framework for every action and every behaviour that the business and its employees takes. But note, this is much more than hashtags and social media posts: it needs to be seen in every aspect of the business and at every level from hiring, to product development, supply chains to marketing.

“When a business steps away from its purpose and behaves in a way that does not chime with its own claims and values, this creates problems for employees and activists will jump on it.”

There have been far too many high- profile examples of this in the last year or so, including:

  • Google: Part of their previous corporate motto was “Don’t be evil” and employees took exception to the fact that they were working with the Pentagon developing AI technology for drone weaponry. Last year they also made headlines when their employees asked San Francisco Pride to revoke Google’s sponsorship of Pride 2019 events, citing alleged issues with how Google handles LGBTQ harassment
  • In 2019, Walmart employees organised a walkout to demonstrate their stance on gun control, demanding their employer stop selling firearms after a gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart in Texas.
  • At Amazon, where they claimed to be “… committed to and invested in sustainability because it’s a win all round”, more than 7,700 employees signed a petition and thousands marched in protest about Amazon’s impact on climate change, demanding a more ambitious approach.
  • At Wayfair, their social responsibility statement includes, “strong communities and good business are inextricably linked” and employees protested at them providing furniture for child detention centres and
  • The BBC discovered, through its equal pay row, that a lack of transparency around how staff are treated can be costly.

Challenge or opportunity?

There is certainly an opportunity for businesses who manage activism in the right way to turn it into advocacy.   “A few people are born activists, but many aren’t,” says Ros, “but as communicators we can help employees move towards advocacy if we understand it as a journey.

“It begins with awareness of what issues the company is specifically interested in and building understanding around the company’s position on that issue. Then you can develop capability in expressing the company’s position before feeling empowered to speak out in support of it. My view at Coke was that all our employees should at the very least know which issues the company thinks are important, but only a smaller subset need to be at the advocacy end – ideally those in the customer-facing roles or ‘super-influencers’ internally.  And those are the people you really focus your resource on.”

With the various platforms and processes we have in our workplaces, it’s worth thinking about how AI, sentiment analytics and more sophisticated models of listening to employees help us, as communicators, to understand better how employees are feeling about certain issues. We need to encourage a culture where our people are encouraged to speak up about what they do and don’t agree with about how the business behaves, without any fear of sanction, and there needs to be transparency around all processes and policies. Being able to identify our activists, advocates or potential antagonists will help us focus our resources accordingly.

Guidelines for navigating the new wave of activism: 
  1. Embrace employee activism as a positive force to propel your reputation and your business
  2. Ensure your corporate purpose and culture are known from the point of interview, onboarding and throughout the employee interview
  3. Be mindful of what is on employees minds
  4. Cultivate a culture of openness and transparency
  5. Establish a response protocol
  6. Clearly articulate and communicate your company’s values
  7. Make your company’s values part of the solution

Channel the energy

It takes courage and conviction to be an activist. And Energy. These are valuable qualities in employees and, by creating the right corporate culture and using the digital workplace tools we have at our disposal, as internal communicators we are ideally placed to harness and channel these valuable qualities and turn our activist employees into advocates.

It’s important too for CEOs to set the stage to say that activism can be a good thing in their company. Establishing activist networks and ethical business forums all go some way to providing a platform for employee concerns to be raised and recognised. When Salesforce were on the receiving end of an employee backlash over its selling of software to the US Customs and Border Protection agency, CEO Marc Benioff created an internal Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology. He has gone on to be one of the most regularly cited CEO activists saying, “I might be called an ‘activist CEO,’ because I’m responding to what my employees want. But the reality is that if you don’t do that, you are not going to be the CEO.”

How can communicators respond to employee activism?

How a company responds to employee activism, has a significant impact on employee-employer relations, employee engagement and on reputation. Managing activism well, we can create advocacy, collaborating with our employees and helping them change the world; or, if we don’t become part of the conversation, and don’t work together towards a solution, activists can quickly become agitators, working against their employer and exposing a difference of opinion on an ethical, social or political issue.

If, as an employer you agree with the activists, it’s easy: stand with them – literally, if it’s a protest. Yet, whether principles are aligned or not, as communicators find ways to show employees that we are listening to them and genuinely attempting to understand their points of view and motivations. Rather than shy away from difficult conversations, embrace the opportunity to build trust, keeping dialogue open and helping to diffuse the conversation – not shut it down. Ros continues, “There is an opportunity for communicators here to embrace activism and make it into a force for good – for our employees, for the companies we represent and for society as a whole.” When successful, employee activism can effect change in individual businesses and can also set trends that shape an industry.

Ultimately, the question for communicators is, ‘do you see it as a challenge or an opportunity?’

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