The Rising Tide of Employee Activism: Responding to Employee Activism

The Rising Tide of Employee Activism: Responding to Employee Activism

Recently, I published two pieces exploring the recent surge in employee activism. In the first, I offered my thinking on why activism is on the rise; and in the second, I offered my view on the conditions that need to exist to prevent healthy tension between employees and executives from spiraling into messy public activism campaigns. While of course every company’s goal is to resolve issues before they become activist campaigns, the reality is that there’s no bulletproof way to prevent their occurrence. While today’s wave of employee activism feels fresh and new, the concept of public pressure campaigns waged by employees dates back to the golden era of the labor movement. Activism is a new expression of a very old phenomena.

So, if your company eventually finds itself in the eye of an employee activist campaign, what can you do to thaw impasses, defuse tension, protect your reputation and maintain operational consistency? There are a few activities I think are especially important.

  1. Have a process for debate and the courage to draw red lines: In many cases, activism is a sign of engagement. Employees who are willing to make their voices heard, generally speaking, care about the company and its future, believe deeply in its mission and want the organization to live up to its ideals. That’s a good thing!

    However, while debate is good, there are productive and non-productive ways for these debates to occur. The companies who deal with employee activism most effectively are the ones who have an infrastructure established to allow tension to healthily accumulate and release.

    This starts with process. If you want to prevent good, healthy debate from becoming PR disasters, process is your friend. Employees need to enjoy a sense of confidence that there are effective internal avenues to make their voices heard. From there, it should be clear how their perspective will be heard and considered, and when and in what format a response will be received. When processes exist, and they’re seen as fair, transparent and values-based, tension can be exercised in a productive manner.

    This also requires that companies are willing to draw some red lines. These red lines reflect both values (what we will never sacrifice in pursuit of our goals), and behaviors (what can or cannot be tolerated in the process of dialogue).

    By nature, the contours of these lines will look different at every company. For cultural and operational reasons, every organization has a different capacity to handle emotionally charged debates. That’s ok. What’s important is for employees is to know what’s fair game and what’s out of bounds, and to be sure that channels exist for them to express their views, concerns, and expectations.

  2. Ask employees to help form a solution. The most successful companies are highly connected enterprises. There’s a sense of togetherness and a tolerance for debate and differing points of views. As part of establishing a process for dealing with employee activism, find ways to engage employees (or employee representatives) in creating a solution to respond to activist concerns. In many cases, affinity groups provide a built-in infrastructure and can be engaged in these types of problem-solving exercises. Present them with all the facts of the case, and the competing stakeholder concerns, and ask them to creatively problem solve on your behalf. So long as cornerstone elements of engagement exist (trust, shared values, etc.), employees are rarely seeking a zero-sum victory over their employer. Rather, if empowered and entrusted to help form a company’s response, more often than not a “win-win” will occur.
  3. Move fast. Today’s workforce is comprised of a unique mix of generations. One of the reasons companies have often seem flat-footed in their response to activism campaigns is that they simply are not attuned to the expectations of the young employees who are frequently spurring these efforts.
  4. In all facets of life, younger people today have greatly elevated expectations in terms of speed of response. They expect answers much faster than any previous generation. What may be an attempt at thoughtfulness and deliberation is likely to be seen as avoidance and “spin.” The reality is, you’re likely to be judged based on the time tables of your harshest critics.

    In this situation, frequency trumps completeness. It’s better to create and maintain highly active lines of communication, even when a final resolution is not yet in sight, than to carefully prepare a single final announcement.

  5. Show your math and be willing to “agree to disagree”. Many companies’ responses to activist campaigns ultimately further enflame tensions. This often happens when rather than simply acknowledging that they’ve heard employees’ perspective and chosen to maintain a different direction, messages are vague and muddled. They try to make rejections seem like compromises. This insults employees’ intelligence and fuels their frustration.

    The best responses to activist campaigns are ones that are quick, clear, decisive and grounded in a consistent rationale. Employees are better equipped to accept a truth they don’t agree with than a half-truth they can’t decipher. If you treat employees like adults who can accept disagreement, they will respond like adults who can accept disagreement. If you treat them any other way, anything could happen.

As I mentioned earlier, employee activism today is a new wave of a familiar challenge. While it may ebb and tide as it relates to its frequency, this is a natural and enduring dynamic. I hope these posts have helped to shine a light on where activism comes from, and how we can prevent and defuse it. I am eager to hear others’ thoughts on all of the above. Leave your comments here or feel free to reach out to me directly!

Read the rest of the series: