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With Employee Activism On the Rise: What’s a CEO to Do?

Jon Mertz February 17, 2019

In the last few months alone, we’ve seen unprecedented amounts of employee activism within corporations and tech giants. Google, in particular, has seen its fair share of activist employees rallying around issues that are deeply personal to them.

In April, an employee-led petition called for Google’s CEO to step away from a contract with the Pentagon that used artificial intelligence in drones and cameras. Employees, the petition stated, didn’t believe Google should be in the business of war. Months later, Google employees orchestrated a walkout to protest reports of alleged sexual misconduct and high-level leadership protecting the individual responsible.

Google has been the most prominent example of employee activism within a large company, but certainly not the only one. Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce are among the many companies seeing their people organizing and speaking up about issues with which they do or don’t agree. They are vocal about their own values—and the values and the part they believe their employer should play in the world.

Is this the beginning of a new era? It may feel like it, but employee activism has been alive and well for decades. We’ve just called it by a different name: unions. It’s how employees are organizing today that has taken new shape and meaning.

The union membership rate was just over 20 percent in 1983 and declined to 10.5 percent in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With the diminishing power of unions over time—and the rise of employee voices to change policies on issues such as sexual harassment, discrimination, and expression of their viewpoints—employee activism has risen. Add in the Millennial generation entering the workforce year after year—with their deep desire to use work as a vehicle to make a difference in the world—and you have a business climate that will only see activism grow.

Another factor that is adding fuel to the activism fire: our political leaders are arguably slow to solve many of the problems that plague our nation. This paves the way for businesses—and employees—to naturally fill that void. When done correctly, businesses can solve many of the societal problems that politicians have failed address.

Employees, by holding their leaders accountable and speaking up when they see injustice, have incredible power today to make monumental lasting changes. This can be everything from transforming a misogynistic culture to taking a stand on a local political issue.

I believe employee activism can be an important and positive force for business prosperity—if the CEO and leadership can find opportunities to welcome and embrace it, rather than shun or run from it. But doing this well is easier said than done, and requires a fair amount of effort to create this culture.

As a CEO or member of a leadership team, I encourage you to do the following:

1. Recognize that employees see themselves as citizens of the company. Any CEO interested in embracing employee activism should remember that employees today rarely view their employer as just a paycheck. Individuals have many choices today in how they make money, especially with such a strong job market. The employees working for a particular business are likely there because the work aligns with their talents and the company aligns with their values. They have a vested interest and take great care in how the business presents itself to the world. Celebrate this, and honor their commitment. When activism begins, recognize it comes from a caring, personal place.

2. Check your values, and develop a philosophy. It’s one thing to plaster your mission and values on the walls and another to understand change through new experiences. Values risk becoming dogma while your leadership philosophy should evolve based on experiences in your organization and community. Revisit your values and leadership philosophy based on what you and others are experiencing. Failing to do so will leave you out-of-step with employees who will eventually feel the misalignment, which could trigger outrage or mobilization on issues they feel the CEO or leadership has missed.

3. Foster open conversations about difficult topics. When company values are firmly in place, find ways to start and continue dialogues around community, political, or people issues that could be important to your employees. For example, if the business resides in a rundown part of town, perhaps economic development is an important topic to discuss. If the business is heavily staffed with women, perhaps employees would like to see the company become vocal on a local issue directly impacting women. These conversations could take place during staff meetings, through an organized event, at a community forum, or in a variety of other ways. The important thing is that the conversations start, and the CEO and leadership is committed to listening and acting.

4. Build employee goodwill over time. Any time CEOs or leaders can demonstrate they’ve listened to the issues impacting their employees, these leaders build goodwill. This goodwill, built over time through a variety of actions, will prove to be powerful when employees disagree with leadership. For example, had Google’s CEO built more goodwill with employees, it’s possible that transparency would have happened sooner or even inspired the CEO to protect the harassed rather than the harasser.

Employee activism is a trend that will continue to rise. It’s up to CEOs to understand how they want to interact with it. To ignore it would be a mistake they would surely regret. To deal with it with a strong hand would also be harmful and likely cause retaliation.

The only choice is to embrace it and to ensure it becomes a force for good—for not only the business, but the entire community.

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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