Amazon and Dollar General’s recent struggles with employee activism confirm what we’ve always known: that in 2022, companies can’t stop employees from using their voices. They can, however, invest in stronger employee experiences and listening systems so that employees are happier and using their voices in more productive ways.
Employee activism has been on leaders’ minds recently, with Amazon and Dollar General two of the latest major companies struggling with public, messy disputes with employees. While the situations are certainly different and we don’t have the full context on either, both are reminders that we’ve entered a new age. In this new age, employees expect more from their employers, and they’re willing to use new channels to express those expectations. They’re also powerful examples of the business case for investing in a stronger employee experience. When employees don’t feel valued or heard, healthy tension can quickly boil over into public, unhealthy tension. The transition can escalate more quickly now than ever, but it’s not inevitable.
Consider Amazon’s case: After an unsuccessful attempt to stop New York warehouse employees from unionizing, the company now faces a damaged brand and threatened operating model. Previously, Amazon employees in other locations had rejected attempts at unionizing their warehouses. So what changed?
The New York Times’ coverage paints a clear portrait of the opportunity Amazon missed.
“What you do is you create a community that Amazon never really had for workers,” said Seth Goldstein, a lawyer representing the organizers.
“The humanity at Amazon is gone,” said Kathleen Lejuez, a nine-year employee of Amazon who was generally anti-union. She voted in favor of the organizing “to send a message to a company that she felt had lost its connection to workers.”
There are different ways to invest in making employees feel connected and valued. As you consider which actions are right for your company and how much they’re set to cost, it’s critical that you consider episodes like Amazon’s as a possible cost of inaction.
Though it’s a different situation, Dollar General’s recent struggles with activism followed a similar script. After Amy Gundel, a Dollar General store manager in Florida, received repeated criticisms from customers about the state of her store, Gundel took to Tik Tok, showing the realities of understaffing that prevented her from serving her customers as well as she wished. After her videos went viral, Dollar General laid her off — which led to a wave of Dollar General store managers across the country joining on to show the poor state of their own stores.
“Everyone has their breaking point,” Gundel said. “You can only feel unappreciated for so long.”
An easy takeaway of all this could be that we need to shore up social media policies, and make sure employees all know the expectations as they join. Another one could be that we need to remove the bureaucracy from many internal channels, and do better to truly hear employee feedback.
Rob Wodzinski leads our Experience Studio at Gagen, advising on how to integrate technology platforms to enhance employee communications and experiences. He increasingly faces this discussion with our clients.
“These are both good ideas," he believes. "At Gagen, we have been working with our clients in leadership positions to find a tighter balance between push/pull communications with their teams and employees across digital channels. However, the takeaway should be bigger. The truth is that in business today, the command-control approach does not work. You cannot control whether employees are going to be heard; you can only control how much you choose to listen, and how well you let them know you are genuinely listening.”
Tension truly can be healthy for an organization; it pushes both parties to adjust their perspective and improve. It needs, however, to be diffused to stay healthy. The more tension builds up, the more chance it has of turning into turnover, negative publicity, forced changes to your operating model or a mix of all three.
Love in business really is good business, and love requires listening, care and compromise.