How to stay afloat in the age of employee activism

As workers increasingly are urged to be brand ambassadors, the company-endowed megaphone can start blaring adverse messages against leaders. Here’s how to mitigate any damage.

How to handle employee activism

Employee activism has been rising for some time now.

At this point, there is no excuse for companies to be caught unaware. Every organization should undertake steps to quell an embarrassing employee demonstration of opposition to a company policy, decision or action.

For years, companies have asked their employees to advocate on their behalf.

Workers accustomed to speaking out on the company’s behalf, though, are less likely to have qualms about taking issue with the organization than those who have never raised their voice at all.

A Weber Shandwick survey, “Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees Up(rising),” found nearly 40% of employees are activists, speaking up either in support of or opposition to the company, and another 11% are potential activists.

What’s more, 84% of employees believe it’s appropriate for workers to speak up for their employers, but 74% believe employees are right to speak up against them. According to the report, “The belief that employees have a right to speak up in support of their employers is consistent across generations.”

Millennials are among the most fervent believers that social change is business’s responsibility, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Increasingly, younger generations see themselves not as worker bees but as citizens of the company.

The focus of activism

When employees speak out about their company, the organization’s policies and actions are a likely target.

Companies have been slapping values statements on their walls and touting their employee engagement efforts for years. It should be no surprise that employees who have been told the company won’t tolerate sexual harassment bristle openly when the company chooses to coddle abusers.

That business leaders aren’t paying attention to their employees is even worse. It has been more than two years since Richard Edelman unveiled the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, saying: “The world has flipped upside down. It used to be a pyramid of authority; now it’s upside down. The influence actually rests with the mid-level people, who speak peer to peer. If they’re for you, you win.”

Flipping the pyramid of authority, Edelman said, requires CEOs to focus on their employees to gain trust with consumers. The study also has found that consumers look at how companies treat employees as a key trust driver.

What to do?

First, insist on complete alignment between your stated values and your company’s behavior. The very notion of values is spelling out what the company believes and how it will behave.

Employees—especially millennials—make decisions about where they’ll work based on the company’s purpose and values. When they witness behavior that contradicts the values, they unsurprisingly feel betrayed. If they witness it enough, they can be motivated to act.

Second, listen to your employees before an activist group arises and be willing to listen to activist groups after they appear. Take them seriously, and for heaven’s sake, don’t retaliate, which will only draw more unwanted attention.

Set up and maintain a group of employees who represent a cross-section of the organization, so you can reach out to when you need to take the population’s temperature—through pulse surveys or monthly check-ins.

A further step is to invite employees to play a part in the decision-making process. Trust and engagement will be sure to grow, even if company leaders proceed with a contradictory decision—as long as they can explain authentically why they rejected employees’ input.

Third, don’t keep secrets. It may seem counterintuitive, especially to older leaders, but it’s important to have difficult conversations with employees about topics that could become the spark for activism.

Ultimately, it comes down to one belief company leaders should hold dear: Employees deserve to be treated with respect.

Much of this advice is reiterated in Weber Shandwick’s guidelines for navigating the new wave of employee activism:

  • Embrace employee activism as a positive force to propel your reputation and your business.
  • Ensure your corporate purpose and culture are known from the point of applicant interview and onboarding through employee tenure.
  • Be mindful of what is on employees’ minds.
  • Cultivate a culture of openness and transparency.
  • Establish a response protocol.
  • Clearly articulate and communicate your company’s values.
  • Make your company’s values part of the solution.

A response protocol

Almost all of Weber Shandwick’s guidelines focus on how to prevent activism. There’s one item—fifth on the list—that is reactive rather than proactive: Establish a response protocol.

Key considerations include the following:

  • Acknowledge employees’ concerns. Demonstrate respect for employees, even if you disagree with their perspective. Don’t minimize their concerns.
  • Explain what’s next. If the next step is to meet with employees to hear their concerns, tell them that’s what’s being planned.
  • Communicate the company’s rationale for whatever it is that has sparked the protest. Make sure employees have all the information they need to make informed decisions.
  • Have a process in place for soliciting employee input, whether it’s meetings or some kind of survey. Share the results.
  • If employees are right—especially if it’s a question of the company’s stated values—let them know how you’re going to be true to the values in the future.
  • If employees are right, apologize to them for letting them down and spell out how you’ll keep it from happening again. Then walk the talk.
  • Keep up a steady stream of information. Know the channels you’ll use to share this information and get feedback.

Employee activism is part of the business landscape now that companies are populated with employees who see themselves as citizens of the company. The solution is to treat them that way. Ultimately, viewing employees as citizens with a stake in the company’s success and its reputation will pay far more dividends than it will cost.

Shel Holtz, SCMP (Certified Strategic Communication Management Professional), is currently director of Internal Communication at Webcor, a San Francisco-based commercial contractor. A version of this article originally appeared on his blog.

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