Authenticity, Action and the Age of Employee Activism

October 1, 2019

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Climate change dominated conversations last week during the UN General Assembly in New York, with Greta Thunberg’s speech demanding leaders do better capturing headlines all over the world. Also capturing headlines with increasing regularity are employees publicly challenging their employers to act decisively on issues that matter to them. Last week it was climate change, but we’ve seen it happen around gun rights, gender equality, immigration and other issues as well.

This is a new age of employee activism, where employers are held accountable for their values and how they come to life in business decisions. In the case of climate change, the 2019 Authenticity Gap study, “Authenticity in Action,” reveals that 73% of those surveyed think it is important for companies to institute working practices that protect the environment. Yet how many companies are taking substantive action to meet and exceed their public commitments?

The stakeholder group closest to the realities are employees. The larger the gap between their expectations and experiences, the higher the likelihood that they will protest with public-facing action, whether it’s leaking an internal memo, ranting on social media or staging a large-scale walkout. The potential fallout for the company can impact everything from recruitment and retention to productivity, sales and investor confidence.

Much of this changing dynamic is due to the evolution of the traditional employer-employee relationship. It’s no longer based exclusively on what the company does for the individual employee – although that is incredibly important – but now also includes what the organization does for society at large, particularly in the areas of equality, inclusivity and the environment. Equally, the definition of “the company” has expanded to include supply chain, business partners, so-called passive investors and more. In other words, businesses are being evaluated, and sometimes taken to task, for the company they keep.

It’s easy to understand why this would cause trepidation among business leaders, particularly those that believe neutrality is the best way to avoid causing offense. However, in this pressurized environment, neutrality poses an equal or greater risk than a well-articulated point of view, regardless of which “side” of the issue it supports. “Authenticity in Action” shows that three out of four consumers globally expect CEOs in particular to take a stand on issues that have an impact on the company’s customers (74%), products and services (72%) and employees (71%).

Companies may choose to accept the risk associated with not taking a stand on an issue, but it should be a thoughtful and informed decision, not one made by default. Here are five actions to consider so you’re prepared to let your employees know you’ve heard them, show you understand their position, respond to their concerns and still maintain business continuity:

  • Ask an honest question – who cares? It’s important to know what issues matter to your employees and which of those they expect you to act on. Data privacy and security, the environment and income inequality topped the list in “Authenticity in Action” but there may be others specific to your business. If you don’t already know what they are, ask.
  • Establish the rules of the game. Employees and company leaders should be clear on the established channels for dialogue, how they are used and what results they can be expected to deliver. When everyone understands the rules going in, more authentic engagement comes out.
  • Prioritize conversation now to avoid controversy later. Take stock of employee resource groups or committees aligned to issues that may generate activism and be open to proactive dialogue so you can consider their points of view. If employees feel that you’re willing to hear them, they’re more likely to choose internal resolution over public activism.
  • Don’t be shy. There is more attention than ever on the behavior of individual company leaders, but instead of shying away from the scrutiny, C-suite leaders should seize the opportunity to be more relatable to employees and engage them in a meaningful exchange of perspectives. This creates a stronger foundation from which to consider when and how to support your employees on issues that matter to them.
  • Be ready to handle the heat. Have a plan for how you will approach the situation if your employees challenge you on an issue or a particular decision. Investing time now to think through the difficult actions you may need to take – reversing a position, dropping a valued customer and the criteria for doing so – will make those decisions easier when the situation is near a tipping point.