How to deal with employee activism

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Ethan is the CEO of Integral, an award-winning employee activation agency. He is a teacher at Columbia and administrator of the Institute for PR.

In December 2021, a single Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York became the first to join. Employees at 100 Starbucks stores will strive to unionize within 90 days. Among the underlying reasons? Workers, especially younger women and non-binary workers, want to make their voices heard

Employees use their voices and collective influence to respond to political and societal tensions, causing employers to rethink their positions and policies. Engagement with Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement and the climate change crisis, as well as a renewed appetite for unionization, are now part of the reality organizations face, especially as they meet environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. pursue.

You probably underestimate how many social and political issues concern the employees in your company. Employees want to talk about their political views in the workplace, something I couldn’t have imagined when I entered the job market. In a survey of 2,000 employees my company conducted using The Harris Poll, 48% of respondents said they should be able to express themselves politically at work, and 51% of respondents say they feel comfortable doing so. Millennials feel strongest when sharing their views – so these numbers are going up.

Our research also highlighted the topics that employees most want their employer to make a difference to in the areas of racial inequality/discrimination/hate crime/prejudice/prejudice, gender pay and leadership gap (elevating women to leadership positions), climate change/environmental responsibility/ environmental efforts and voting rights. And 21% are willing to walk away if their company’s values ​​don’t align with their personal beliefs.

Prepare for disruption

Numerous companies have taken public stances condemning violence against black Americans (after the George Floyd murder) and Asian-American/Pacific Islanders (after numerous acts of violence). Some companies supported racial justice in concrete ways, with substantial donations to support organizations and commitments to ensure equality in hiring and promotion.

But there are also plenty of examples of companies that have made missteps, causing employees to joke after a lot of talk but see little or no action. In both cases, the supposedly internal struggle seeped out, became a problem we all read about and caused even more damage to the reputations and brands of these companies.

In 2020, Coinbase’s CEO was famous: Posted that the company would focus solely on its mission. He stated that the company would not engage in “wider societal issues…unrelated to our core mission.” The CEO explains, “The reason is that while I think these efforts are well-intentioned, in most companies they have the potential to destroy a lot of value, both by being a distraction and creating internal divisions.” who did not embrace this focus, and 5% of employees quit.

Four steps to face the future

Be guided by these four questions to avoid negative consequences. First, have you looked closely at your company values? Do they include creating a workplace climate that promotes diversity? Do they appeal to behaviors held by everyone, especially leaders? More importantly, do they reflect what your employees value? Our survey found that 36% of respondents say their company’s values ​​don’t match their personal values.

Does your company then – and does your company meaningfully fund and support your company – have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)? Fostering employee groups around common characteristics such as race, gender and sexual orientation provides employees with a forum to discuss shared values ​​and goals. Senior leaders can regularly engage in candid discussions with ERG members about company policies and the impact of external tensions on their members.

Third, are you listening? Create channels to understand employee reactions to social and political moments. Is there a spike in comments on Yammer or Slack? Are employees suddenly posting negative reviews about your positions (or lack thereof) on Glassdoor? Do employees bring up social and political conflicts in conversations with managers? It shouldn’t be difficult to supplement the annual employee engagement survey with the occasional “pulse” survey to gauge how people are feeling. Better yet, build an ongoing, structured dialogue with employees in the form of rolling focus groups and facilitated skip-level interviews.

Fourth, did you share the ground rules? Be clear about expectations about how employees use the company’s social channels to discuss political topics, such as avoiding personal attacks or profanity, and sharing the value your company creates. In fact, offer employees the opportunity, incentive, air cover and content to share.

Ever since more than half of employees use personal devices for work at least some of the time, employees have easy access to news outside the company walls. Not every political or societal shift requires a response from the company. But as seen with Coinbase, even proclaiming you’re not participating represents a divisive response. And employees are willing to quit their jobs rather than stay if their values ​​and opinions differ from those of their employer.

It is best to know where you and your employees stand. Your employees are watching, and so are your customers.


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