Definition

employee activism

Contributor(s): Kate Brush

Employee activism is actions taken by workers to speak out for or against their employers on controversial issues that impact society. Employee activists focus on campaigning to change their company's policies, with a focus on social activism -- actions performed intentionally to generate social change.

Corporate activism has transformed into employee activism, with workers directly challenging their employers and business leaders. Employee activists make their actions visible, whether they're criticizing their employers or defending them and acting as advocates. Employee activism may be stimulated directly by the employer, but it is more frequently generated organically by the employee through self-motivation and determination. Common actions for employee activists to take include speaking out on social media, leaking internal company emails, whistleblowing, or, in extreme circumstances, staging walkouts and protests.

When strategically facilitated, employee activism has the potential to create significant changes from within the company. It affects employees, employers and the workplace. Millennials are more likely to become employee activists than other generations in the workforce. Furthermore, most employee activism has been seen in the technology industry, where tech workers tend to be younger and the applications of new technology are becoming harder to predict.

The increase in employee activism comes from a shift in workers' values. With more millennials entering the workforce, employee values are changing from a focus on personal interest to concern for the big picture and sociopolitical stance of the company.

Importance of employee activism

In the past, most companies considered stakeholder engagement to be an external factor, focusing on people outside the company. The rise in employee activism has forced employers to realize that they need to focus on their internal stakeholders -- their employees.

Employees are an essential element of any company. Therefore, the way they are affected by policy changes and events within the company determines the extent of their engagement and the quality of their contributions to the workplace.

Employee activism has risen in prominence because many employees feel they are in a state of upheaval. According to research from global communications and marketing firm Weber Shandwick -- in collaboration with KRC Research and United Minds consultancy -- 84% of workers surveyed have experienced some form of employer change in the past few years and 42% have experienced a major event, such as layoffs or mergers. Employees also expressed dissatisfaction and concerns that their employers are underperforming in the areas of:

On the other hand, employees are also feeling an increased need to defend the reputation of their company, either to family and friends or in a more public form -- such as on social media, websites or newspapers.

These newly empowered and vocal workers are displaying an unprecedented ability to alter a company's strategy and impact their reputation, but it's important to acknowledge that the effects of employee activism can be both beneficial and detrimental to the employer. Employees will either speak up in support of their employers, or they will use their voice to reveal what they perceive as wrong doings within the enterprise and destroy the reputation of the company.

As the focus on political and social issues grows, employees are becoming more inspired to speak about the issues that are affecting their society. Employee activism empowers them to create a healthy workplace built on their collective values. In response, companies are becoming more accountable for their corporate values and organizational practices.

Advantages of employee activism

The most significant benefit of employee activism is its ability to create positive changes within a business and society. Companies are being forced to take accountability for their actions and adhere to values that benefit society. Employee activists have protested everything from low wages to their company's dealings with the government. Amazon employee activists recently focused their efforts on what they perceived as their company's inaction on climate change. Furthermore, the ways in which these big companies have responded to the concerns their employees have raised have prompted other companies to make similar changes, further increasing the positive impact of the employees' actions.

Another advantage of employee activism is the positive changes it is creating within work environments. Employers have started to acknowledge and embrace activism as a positive force within their business that has the potential to boost their reputation and improve their relationships.

Employers are also becoming clearer about their corporate purpose and business culture. This transparency often leads to an open environment where employees are encouraged to express their concerns to their leaders in outlets such as forums. Employers are also becoming clearer when expressing their corporate values. These values are becoming a key element of their solution for handling concerns and pleasing employees.

Finally, employee activism has led employers to become more in touch with their workforce. Some companies are trying to understand what's on their employees' minds, acknowledging that this group of internal stakeholders is just as important, if not more important, than their external stakeholders.

Disadvantages of employee activism

The disadvantages of employee activism are mostly related to employee activists who detract, or turn against, their company. The increased transparency that has resulted from the recent succession of corporate scandals -- involving companies such as Google, Walmart and Wayfair -- has led to a decreased trust in business leaders to do the right thing. Employees are organizing around the belief that their employers are more motivated by greed and money than by making positive changes and contributions to the world.

If companies do not react to this increase in employee activism and do not provide outlets for their workers to express their concerns directly to leaders, then it becomes more likely that their employees will resort to more extreme actions, such as seeking media attention and organizing protests. These major moves taken by employees would be far more detrimental to employers than if they had provided a safe space for communication.

Employee activism is producing significant negative effects within the tech industry. Hiring and retaining top talent is crucial to tech companies who are already struggling with a smaller pool of talent to pick from. When employee activists speak out and damage the reputation of a company, workers are less likely to accept or stay with jobs from that employer. Companies must acknowledge that their tech workers are less concerned with their salary and job perks and more concerned with their employer's commitment to creating a healthy work environment, nurturing talent and creating positive changes within society. Otherwise, employees will continue to leave the company and the employer's performance and growth will be diminished.

Types of employee activists

The Weber Shandwick research identifies six types of employee activists:

  1. ProActivists
  2. PreActivists
  3. HyperActives
  4. ReActivists
  5. Detractors
  6. InActives

ProActivists speak out positively about the company and almost never pursue negative actions. They offer the highest level of employee engagement.

PreActivists, while frequently possessing a positive outlook on the company, do not take as many positive actions as ProActivists. They are also slightly more likely to engage in negative activities. PreActivists offer an average level of employee engagement.

HyperActives have the greatest potential to both help and damage a company's reputation. It is likely that they have previously posted something online about their employer that they later regretted. HyperActives are the most engaged employees, after ProActivists.

ReActivists most commonly take positive actions but can also have a high likelihood of detracting or speaking negatively about their employer. They are very critical of workplace conditions and offer an average level of employee engagement.

Detractors only take negative actions against their employers. They distrust their leaders and, as a result of their negative opinions, are the least engaged employees.

InActives are almost as unengaged as detractors but show little or no employer support or negativity. They are unmotivated in their job and put minimal effort into their work.

Examples of employee activism

As mentioned before, major corporations such as Google, Wayfair and Walmart have had prominent experiences of employee activists speaking up and demanding change.

In November 2018, 20,000 Google employees walked out of work in protest of their company's sexual harassment policies and handlings. The protest was a response to the transparency created by a New York Times article that revealed Google management's protection of high-ranking employees who had been accused of misconduct. The walkout led to Google changing some of its sexual harassment policies and promising that it would be easier for employees to report misconduct in the future. However, the protest also had a larger impact. Google employees became more willing to speak out against their leadership.

In November 2019, Google employees organized a rally outside the San Francisco office to protest the wrongful suspension and firing of employee activists. Workers are arguing that the employees were put on leave or fired for speaking out against the company.

In June 2019, Wayfair employees staged a walkout to protest the company's agreement to supply migrant detention centers with furniture. Before organizing the walkout, over 500 employees had written to their leaders, asking them to stop all business relations with these detention centers. Some employees had also met with the Wayfair CEO to express their concerns. Unfortunately, these initial actions did not create the desired changes, and the employees resorted to the walkout.

In August 2019, Walmart employees staged a walkout and moment of silence to protest the company's continued sale of firearms after two store locations had been the sites of deadly shootings within a week of each other. Walmart leaders responded by announcing it would no longer sell ammunition for short-barrel rifles and handguns. The company has also started asking customers not to bring guns into their stores.

Future of employee activism

While the employee activism that has made headlines occurred at large companies, it is expected to have major impacts among smaller organizations as well. Employers need to adapt their leadership practices. They need to find ways to encourage employee activism when it provides positive impacts on the business -- such as employees vocalizing their support or defending the company over social media -- but they also need to implement strategies to handle employee concerns before they become so big they start to negatively affect the company and its reputation.

Leaders must start monitoring and understanding how the external and internal social, cultural and political environments are affecting employee opinions and attitudes about the company's actions or inactions. It may become more common for employers to organize regular employee experience audits and town hall forums where workers can freely and safely voice their ideas and concerns.

The trend of workers caring less about their salary and benefits and more about their employer's values and ability to create a healthy workplace will continue to grow as more young workers are hired. As a result, employers must increase their focus on motivating employees around solid, corporate values that are clearly defined.

The future will also see employers embracing employee engagement through social media. While the real-time speed and growing collection of social platforms used by employees can make some employers fearful of the various ways in which their workers can destroy their reputation, they should also realize that social media can be used to create positive changes for the company. Leaders should find ways to excite their positive employee activists and encourage them to voice their support and positive reflections of the company through their social outlets. Embracing social media could open new possibilities for organizational change.

This was last updated in January 2020

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