5 ways communicators can prep for—and respond to—employee activism

If you resist or ignore pushback, you could compound the crisis. Instead, listen to your workers, let them blow off steam, and make a good-faith effort to accommodate their demands.

How to prep for employee activism

There’s a wave coming, and most companies have no idea what to do about it.

Nearly four in 10 employees (38%) say they have spoken up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over a controversial issue that affects society, according to the Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (UP)Rising report from Weber Shandwick. Almost half of millennials say they have spoken out as employee activists, a rate significantly higher than that of Gen Xers (33%) and Baby Boomers (27%).

The most common targets of their attention were other employees (46%) and top leaders at the organization (43%). Approximately one-third of those who took action were also hoping to get the attention of the general public (35%). They were less likely to want the attention of financial investors of the organization (12%) and news outlets (11%).

Tech workers lead the activist trend

Tech employees seem to be at the tip of the employee activism spear. Google withdrew a proposed project with the Pentagon after encountering employee opposition, and Google’s workers have also protested harassment and discrimination at the company. Meanwhile, tech workers across Silicon Valley are increasingly leading the charge for change.

Of course, no industry is immune to employee activism. Most recently, Wayfair employees protested after the company refused to abandon a sale to a government contractor furnishing a detention center for migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border.

How, then, can communication pros carefully, thoughtfully and strategically handle this rising tide of employee activism?

PR and management experts offer these tips:

  • Accept employee involvement. Employees view their employer as more than just a paycheck provider, says Jon Mertz, founder of Activate World. They probably work for a particular business because the work aligns with their talents, and the company ethos aligns with their values. “Celebrate this, and honor their commitment.” Mertz says. “When activism begins, recognize it comes from a caring, personal place.”
  • Align values with business decisions. Company leaders can spark employee activism and outcry if they fail to “walk the talk,” says Shel Holtz, director of internal communication at Webcor. “Companies have been slapping values statements on their walls and touting their employee engagement efforts for years. If your values do not drive your business decisions, then they aren’t really your values—no matter how many posters are hanging on walls.”
  • Listen to your employees—before they form an activist group. Consistently monitor the pulse of your workforce. Send surveys, conduct small-group meetings or even one-on-one phone calls. Consult a group of employees who represent a cross section of the workforce. Take them seriously, listen to their feedback, and make a good-faith effort to accommodate their demands. 
  • Plan your response. Create a response protocol that outlines how to address an employee protest. Acknowledge employees’ concerns, and assure workers that their voices are being heard. Clearly communicate the company’s reasoning for the controversial decision. If the company violated the values it espouses, reverse course, and explain how decisions will be handled better in the future.
  • Create a release valve. A forum, such as an online bulletin board or chat function, can let employees complain, debate company policies and blow off steam, Prachi Juneja writes for the Management Study Guide. Communication pros and HR staffers can monitor the forum and intervene if discussions go out of bounds.

The employee activism trend is gaining steam. As more employees are prepared to protest their employers—and candidly speak out on controversial issues—it’s crucial that communicators are prepared for whatever deluge may come. Are you ready to respond to a tidal wave of employee activism?

A version of this post first appeared on Glean.info.

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