August 3, 2020  

Employee Activism: What It Is, Why It Happens, and How You Can Respond

Toxic Work Environment Employee Experience Diversity and Inclusion

There has been perhaps no time in recent history where people have been so outspoken about the issues that matter to them. Though unions have been demanding fairer treatment for centuries, and workplaces have long given rise to conversations around safety and equity, employees today are increasingly empowered to act in the name of justice. Amidst a global reckoning over issues such as workers' rights, climate change, and racial equity, this is increasing the occurrence of a powerful phenomenon called employee activism.

For business leaders, this form of workplace activism presents both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, it offers a long-awaited chance to advance diversity, inclusion, and equity in the organization. On the other hand, technology and social media have given far greater visibility to workplace issues, and company leaders are now more visible today than ever. Nearly 4 in 10 individuals identify as employee activists and are willing to call out their employers publicly, and that poses unique challenges for people and culture leaders.

What's a company executive to do? In this article, we'll discuss what employee activism is, explain what arouses this particular kind of workplace activism, and consider what employers can do to be honest and trustworthy in their response.

What is employee activism?

Employee activism describes the individual or collective actions of workers who stand up for or against their employers on controversial issues. Employee activists use various social activism methods, including social media campaigns, staged walkouts, and protests, to make their actions visible and generate social change.

Frequently, employee activism brings attention to aspects of the employee experience that are harmful or unjust. One of the best-known examples of this is the Google walkouts, a response to a lack of executive accountability regarding sexual harassment and the inequities that this lack of accountability revealed across the company. In such cases, employee activism is a response to injustice within the workplace that has gone unaddressed, resulting in uncomfortable and sometimes devastating results. 

But not all instances of employee activism have to do with directly inflicted harms. In 2019, Walmart employees organized a 15-minute walkout and moment of silence to demonstrate their stance on gun control, demanding their employer stop selling firearms after a gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. These employees demonstrate that employee activism is not merely about rejecting authority or inciting rebellion. In many cases, employee activists seek societal change and look to the employer to tackle controversial issues.

Why do employees resort to activism?

Employee activism emerges for at least three key reasons:

(1)  Employees were harassed, discriminated against, mistreated, or underpaid;
(2)  Employees wish to express dissatisfaction or gain recognition for other reasons;
(3)  Employees believe their employer can do more and want to see a better outcome

Employee activism rarely comes overnight. In cases where workers are coming out with being harassed, discriminated against, or underpaid, it is safe to assume that they probably tried to reach out and solve the issue through HR or company leadership, but weren't heard or understood. When those efforts fail to gain traction, feelings of helplessness and lack of control can fester. That is when employee dissatisfaction becomes employee activism, expressing itself in workplace conflicts, on the streets, or social media.

In other cases, employee activism results from an employee's desire to gain recognition, whether or not their dissatisfaction stems from their workplace experiences. According to a study by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, people that have power ascribed to them may exhibit heightened sensitivity to self-relevant injustices. When a complaint has no apparent cause, it may help to slow down and understand what's going on. Whether there is a potential misuse of power or unintentionally-inflicted emotional distress at play, leaders can stop to listen, discern the root cause, and offer an empathetic response.

Still, employee activism is not always a result of HR failing to notice problems or respond to them before they reach a boiling point. Some employee activists can surface issues that, while challenging the employer, provide opportunities to better the organization. The Global Climate Strike, where students and workers walked out of their classrooms and workplaces, demonstrates this idea. The employer may not have inflicted harm on workers but is being called to take greater responsibility for people and planet and prioritize social impact alongside financial outcomes. In such cases, reaffirming the employer's commitment to helping create a better world can be a great starting point.

How can employers respond to employee activism?

How can a company respond to employee activism, become a part of the conversation, and work together towards a solution? No matter the reason for any particular case of employee activism, rather than shut down or minimize employees, companies can find ways to show that they are listening and that their workers can still trust them.

If an employee calls for the employer to stand behind a cause, one powerful and bold way to do this is to stand with employees and protest. If the employee is creating outrage without clear cause, the employer can take steps to diffuse the conversation and try and understand some of the employee's underlying motivations. If a company has made mistakes, and the protest has to do with the employer's shortcomings, the employer can step up to apologize and find ways to repair the damage.

Employee activism goes hand-in-hand with tumultuous moments in history and the social and political issues that come with them. But rather than shy away from difficult conversations, employers can embrace them, forge deeper connections, and be a part of the conversation to express the organization's belief that what affects one, affects everyone.

Tina Nataros is a writer and journalist who covers topics including workplace diversity, equity, and psychological safety. Before becoming a freelance writer, she served as a journalist for a youth-affirming news organization and in marketing for AIESEC, a youth organization that awoke her passion for HR and talent.


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