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6 employee activism lessons HR needs today

Employee activism spiked last year, and experts say that as the 'age of purpose' gathers force, more workers will follow suit. Here are a few of the lessons HR should learn now.

Employee activism -- the practice of workers taking action against employers' actions -- has been thrust into a national spotlight. Business and HR leaders would do well to take notice.

Seventy-one percent of employees think they can effect change in society, according to a recent report on employee activism by Weber Shandwick, United Minds and KRC Research. Perhaps even more striking, 62% believe they can effect more change than organizational leaders.

So what exactly does employee activism look like? Here are just a few recent examples:

  • More than 3,000 people -- composed of Wayfair workers and their supporters -- gathered in Boston to protest the company's move to supply beds to immigrant detention centers along the U.S. southern border, according to The Nation.
  • Thousands of Google employees across the globe staged protests of the company's handling of sexual harassment.
  • More than 3,200 Amazon employees pushed for a commitment from the company to reduce its carbon footprint, according to the New York Times.
  • Microsoft and GitHub workers banded together to protest Microsoft's $8 million worth of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts, according to GeekWire.
  • Salesforce employees petitioned CEO Marc Benioff to cancel work with the U.S. Border Patrol, according to Buzzfeed.

Tech-powered employee activism

While today's activists have technology to magnify their voices and power, history is filled with people taking action against injustice.

"Employee activism is nothing new," said Michael Elkins, a litigation attorney and the founder of MLE Law, a full-service labor and employment and business law firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "In fact, most, if not all, of the important employment laws are the result of employee activism."

In the early 1900s, employee activism gave rise to unions to stop harsh working conditions and the use of child labor, he said.

Union membership has dropped from 20.1% in 1983 to 10.5% in 2018, according the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. But some believe that workers are getting power in a different way. Several technologies -- including social media and mobile -- have given workers access to bigger audiences and provided the means to organize on the fly.

The latest spike in employee activism results from using new technology to voice unfairness and promote action, said Simon Sapper, industrial relations expert and director of the Makes You Think consultancy.

"This technology has substituted more traditional forms of labor organization," he said.

In other words, technology has given workers a way to take action inside or outside the formalized structures of unions and their employers.

"[What] HR should learn from all of this is that [employee activism] is the new normal," said Daniel Messeloff, partner with Tucker Ellis LLP. "Social media isn't going away, and emboldened, socially active employees aren't going away."

Unlike with traditional unions, today's employee activism has expanded beyond core worker issues such as pay and safety, to include a wide range of social issues.

"Employee activism is a more prominent issue than ever, especially in the tech industry where there is a significant number of young workers," said Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association. "Companies don't have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines anymore. Their employees want to see how companies are making the world a better place."

HR vs. employees?

HR leaders should be concerned about the growth of employee activism given its potential impact on the employer.

"HR should worry," Sapper said.

Employee activism typically indicates a major disconnection between employers and employees, in terms of priorities and communication, he said. It also indicates that employees feel their concerns aren't being heard.

Improving communications between employer and employees is a key function of HR departments. Having a strong corporate social responsibility program in place can also help HR in realigning ethical and social priorities.

In the "age of purpose" it's crucial that companies have clear communication with their employees and look for ways to create positive change toward a shared purpose," said Tyler Butler, founder and principal of 11Eleven Consulting.

"By implementing strong efforts that impact society and communities in meaningful ways, businesses can take a lead in addressing community-related concerns that their staff might have," she said.

Six employee activism tips for HR

HR lost its place 'alongside' the workforce when it transitioned ... to being an overt part of the management infrastructure.
Russell Thackeray Founder, QEDOD

The recent spate of employee activism holds important insights, experts say. Here are a few they noted:

  1. Get marketing involved. "HR should work with marketing departments to monitor social media and references to the company online to make sure that any issues relating to employee activism are handled sensitively and appropriately, whether from an HR perspective or from a marketing and PR perspective," Messeloff said.
  2. Get proactive. Communication -- particularly proactive communication -- should be a priority.

    "In the context of lessons learned from recent activism, I don't see a fundamental difference between recent acts of activism and employees striking in the 1920s for fair wages and better conditions," Elkins said. "Again, we end up at the same place -- culture and communication."

    Technology can help employers streamline communication and get ahead of problems before they mushroom, he said.

  3. Don't retaliate. Employees' use of social media platforms to express their opinions are all outside of the company's control, Messeloff said. Retaliation after the fact may seem appealing but it is a mistake.

    If a company responds to an employee's activism negatively, the employee can post his or her opinion within seconds, he said.

    "The campaign spreads within a few more seconds and that's how instant protests and boycotts are started," Messeloff said.

    HR should be cautious about disciplining any employee who engages in activism, he said. Even though retaliation has long been a concern, social media has amplified that concern.

    "Now, there is also a risk that an employee may publicize on social media that a company doesn't care about the social issue about which the employee expressed concern, since the employee brought her attention to management and was subsequently disciplined, fired or whatever action took place,"  he said.

  4. Reinvent HR's purpose. Many see HR as being on the side on the corporate leadership, not as being for workers -- and that can be a problem.

    "HR lost its place 'alongside' the workforce when it transitioned from being 'personnel' focused and a conduit between functions, to being an overt part of the management infrastructure," said Russell Thackeray, founder and director of QEDOD, an organizational behavioral consultancy based in London.

    "HR finds themselves between a rock and a hard place," Thackeray said.

    Today's workers are more informed and expect more, and HR can use this as an opportunity to find or build a new proactive role, he said.

  5. Build trust. PricewaterhouseCooper's future of work study found that trust is the top factor in improving work performance. Business Roundtable, the nonprofit association of CEOs from major U.S. companies, recently updated its mission statement to reflect a growing need for corporate responsibility.

    "That new Business Roundtable mission statement shows that there are dollars behind putting people first and demonstrates this is no longer a trend, but a business imperative," said Blair Taylor, a partner in PwC's workforce of the future practice.

    "Today's workforce is pushing organizations to think not only about what they stand for, but what they're actually doing to engage with society," Taylor said.

    Taylor said that If HR teams have the tools to measure how company programs are or aren't working, they can better serve employees. "And if employees have the tools and support to continue learning and find their purpose within an organization, they'll be more fulfilled and feel like they, and the company, are making a bigger impact on clients, communities and their colleagues," he said.

  6. Open communication channels. Company leaders should meet with employees to hear what's important to them and what they think the company should take a stand on and give them safe outlets, such as online platforms, to express their concerns, Kanouse said.

    "This not only creates better engagement, but it also deters employees from seeking other outlets for voicing their concerns, such as media attention or a protest," she said.

    Still, given the rise in activism, acknowledging that potential reality is a must.

    Companies should have a protocol or crisis communication plan in place for forms of activism such as a walkout, Kanouse said.

    "That way, leadership is prepared to react to the situation and resolve issues more quickly," she added.

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