How to make your company a safe place for employee activists

2019 was a big year for activism, particularly as it relates to the role of business in society. Youth activism is on the rise around the globe, with future leaders mobilizing for causes like climate justice, racial and gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and economic change. Faced with mounting global pressure over these issues, CEOs from the world’s biggest companies made waves when they amended the longstanding Business Roundtable “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation”, declaring that the corporations must care for all stakeholders and communities in which they operate, rather than just maximizing wealth for shareholders. The announcement of Greta Thunberg as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is a testament to the integral role of activists in moving society in a more socially responsible direction, a theme that will only continue to gain steam as we face increasingly uncertain times ahead.

But while much of civil society has been celebrating activists like Greta, some corporations have taken the opposite stance. At Google, employees organized an historic walkout demanding “an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism that fuel (its) destructive culture.” Rather than seizing the opportunity to fix its broken culture and involve employee activists in the process, executives at the company pushed the activists out and made it harder for employees to mobilize within internal channels. Google made headlines for firing employee activists organizers - the Thanksgiving Four - defying society’s expectations of how we should treat people who stand up for what is right, and resulting in an investigation into the company's labor practices by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. In a business environment where companies are increasingly vying to position themselves as leaders of social responsibility, actions speak louder than words.

Another corporate giant facing backlash for its crackdown on employee activists is Amazon. When Amazon employees organized a petition and publicly pressured the company to take a more aggressive stance on climate change, the company responded by tightening its communication policies and warning employees that they could be fired for speaking about Amazon publicly without approval. In an open Medium post, employees pushed back against the policy and vowed to continue speaking truth to power about issues like climate change that the company is exacerbating in society. These two corporate giants seem to have forgotten how they started — as small, idealistic startups pushing against the status quo and succeeding because of their employees’ loud and committed voices. Amazon’s and Google’s actions erode the importance of what employee activists have achieved, and their sacrifice putting their careers on the line while creating notable social and environmental impact. The result is a divided and disengaged workforce, and a reason for conscious consumers to evaluate other options.

Big tech might be letting its workers (and society) down, but innovative startups and forward-looking corporations have an immense opportunity to model the next generation of best practices that others will want to follow. Rather than silencing activists, companies like Microsoft and Salesforce have used issues raised by employees to drive innovation and better corporate citizenship. Every company has activists within it, and in order to create a sustainable planet free from inequalities and injustices, companies companies must take action to empower rather than silence them.

What are employee activists?

Nearly 4 in 10 employees consider themselves employee activists, having spoken up to support and/or criticize their employer’s actions over a controversial societal issue. (Quartz Magazine)

Employee activists are not some kind of mysterious superheroes. In fact, they are often ordinary people that look critically at the work they do on a day-to-day basis, and then identify ways – big and small – that they can do to help their company be world-positive. Some might advocate for compost bins to reduce waste, others might campaign to have an employee on the Board of Directors to increase diverse representation in leadership. Some might organize protests against harmful hiring and human resource practices, and others might simply think more critically about how they spend corporate assets or implement sourcing policies to ensure that all supply-related decisions consider sustainability factors.

There are four main types of activists:

  1. Political: These employees understand that their company can play a role in current events and mobilize its leadership to act. For example, in response to an order by President Trump to reduce public lands, Patagonia replaced its website’s traditional homepage with the confrontational headline “The President Stole Your Land” followed by the company’s stance on the issue, further resources and suggestions to donate.
  2. Process: These employees look critically at internal processes and try to change them, perhaps by changing the way promotion decisions are made to remove biases, or greenifying a supply chain by only working with ethical and certified suppliers.
  3. People: These employees stand up for employee rights, by campaigning for things like fair wages, better benefits, and equal opportunity hiring practices.
  4. Philanthropic: These employees work to mobilize their company’s resources to contribute to philanthropic efforts. This can involve championing policies like volunteer paid time off (VPTO) or working to give employees a voice in where the company's CSR dollars go.

There are a few main ways that employees can activate, and successful activism often combines multiple strategies together:

  1. Block: These employees stand up and create obstacles any time the company tries to do something that does not achieve a world-positive outcome.
  2. Activate: These employees mobilize other employees towards a cause, perhaps by organizing a petition or a walkout.
  3. Strategize: These employees present compelling business cases with presentations and white papers to demonstrate the strategic advantage associated with supporting important issues
  4. Politicize: These employees work the hallways, meeting rooms, and calendars of influential people to garner executive support and move activism programs forward.
  5. Empower: These employees are the ones that help outspoken activists make things happen. They navigate the naysayers, help arrange meetings, and/or share important insights and data to help front-line activists be successful.

Why companies should embrace employee activists

Achieving the SDGs is probably the biggest business opportunity that we've ever seen in the history of mankind. The cost of inaction is actually higher than the cost of action. (Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever)

Companies that let employees bring their whole selves to work will attract and retain the best talent, and those employees will bring more creativity and passion to the workplace. That translates to more innovation and better business results for companies. As people are increasingly looking to find purpose in their work, letting individuals - 4 out of 10 of which already consider themselves social activists - use their company's platform to drive positive change is a great way to boost employee engagement and the company's brand image.

A report from Weber Shandwick and KRC research showed that employee activism is on the rise, and by embracing activists, companies can produce better, more inclusive products and services that will reach more potential customers. Simply put, enabling activists is hard, and it may have somme risks, but it also represents a massive business opportunity.

7 factors to help your company become employee-activist friendly

In this guide, we share how you can make your company more employee-activist friendly – even if you don’t yet have a specific cause you're trying to activate for. In order for companies to create safe places for activists at all levels, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done to lay the groundwork for successful activation. The guide is broken into seven main pillars, each of which is needed to create an environment where activism can flourish. 

No one person can address all of these at once, and it’ll take a team of people, and a bit of patience, to transform your company into being truly activist friendly. So, find the pillar that you can address, loop in colleagues, and get to work! Even if you don’t become the next Greta, you can rest well at night knowing that you’re part of a bigger movement creating a more just, sustainable, and equitable economic system:

  1. Executive buy-in and sponsorship
  2. A growth culture that welcomes diverse perspectives
  3. Strong networking within companies, supported by internal infrastructure
  4. Manager buy-in
  5. Utilization of social impact teams and/or policies that are already in place, or putting them in place
  6. A clear understanding of how the business can benefit from social responsibility efforts among employees at all levels
  7. Identifcation of ideas that you can activate towards

#1 Executive buy-in and sponsorship

It’s not easy harboring and promoting employees who push back on corporate decisions and challenge the status quo. But diversity of thought, when harnessed, improves performance. Diminishing voices leads to division and a disengaged workforce, which is worse for profits than any initial cost incurred to support those voices. Embracing employee activism pushes on Corporate America as a whole to do the same.

Thus, nothing is more critical than gaining executive buy-in. Some companies, like Salesforce and Tableau, champion the idea of “citizenship philanthropy” from the top. In our work with Avanade, multiple executives, including the Chief Marketing, Chief Human Resource Office, and General Council, all support its investment in CSR. 

There are four critical areas where you’ll need executive support:

  1. Money: Ultimately, someone at the executive level will have to approve the budget required for activist programs.
  2. Legal and process support: For employee activist programs to grow, there will need to be some policy or process in place to integrate them into the core business (like employee resource groups, billing/tracking codes to engage in intrapreneurial ideas, etc.)
  3. Promotion: To get the word out about programs, and to ensure there is encouragement for participation, executives need to help promote the messaging and stand behind it.
  4. Air cover: Often times, it’s managers or directors that feel most threatened by activists and/or are most resistant to change. Executives can give assurance to people across all levels of the company that activism is encouraged, and that people should support activists rather than shutting them down.

Some employees are not in positions to be able to garner executive support directly, but they can still help create an activist-friendly environment. You can join rallies, ask questions at all-hands, start and/or sign petitions, create proposals, write white-papers, etc. - the list goes on. We share more about how to build executive support in our complete guide to making your business more socially responsible.

The easiest first step is to start asking questions. Talk to your peers, ask a mentor, and set up time with a Human Resource Business Partner to ask how your voice and ideas can reach the executive level. Keep asking questions and exploring opportunities with different business units and teams, each of which may have different levels of support. It’s not uncommon to find a lot of “no’s”. Don’t be discouraged as you hear “no” and “I don’t know”. It’ll take time to find the right paths to gain executive support.

#2. Manager buy-in

Change management within companies lives and dies by manager buy-in. Managers, especially mid-level managers and managers of managers, are usually busy, overworked, and stressed. Most probably aren’t engaged. As you think about engaging managers in a potential activism campaign, you’ll want to approach it like you would a change management campaign. In addition to creating some type of metric or key performance indicator to measure success, you’ll also want to foster top-down and bottom-up pressure on them to support the campaign. A guide from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests the following main phases: 

  1. Define: Be clear what is needed from managers to support the initiative (and what isn’t)
  2. Plan: Help managers understand what the future state will look like, andhow to measure success
  3. Implement: Engage managers as you roll out the new policies
  4. Sustain: Keep following-up to gain traction and make sure the processes being implemented become the new normal

#3. A growth culture that welcomes diverse perspectives

When Satya Nadella took over as the CEO of Microsoft, he famously said, “Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture”. Korn Ferry’s research supports this statement, finding that executives must “design a work environment that engages people, and puts in place new models of leadership and career development.”

Culture is an important contributor to sustainability initiatives, which extends to activism as well. At the ground level, culture allows people to voice diverse perspectives and be curious, asking questions that drive innovation forward. At the senior level, culture guides the actions of managers, directors, and executives to embrace the views of its employees and constituents. While culture is normally set by the company founders and leadership, grassroots efforts can also shape culture from the inside out. 

This guide from the SHRM recommends these 8 steps to improve company culture:

  1. Recognize the Difference Between Skills and Behaviors: Think about the actions you want people to take beyond their professional roles, and encourage them. When it comes to activism, this means creating a place where it is safe to disagree, present diverse perspectives, ask questions, and open up connections across the company to enable collaboration.
  2. Make It About KSAs, not KPIs: KSAs are knowledge, skills, and abilities. These are inputs which can create the right KPIs (key performance indicators), but the goal here is to focus on inputs, not outputs. 
  3. Get Buy-in at the Top: Executives need to support the norm of embracing activists rather than shutting them down. 
  4. Engage Middle Managers: Appeal to the challenges of being a mid-level manager, and involve them in the change management process to foster ownership and accountability.
  5. Communicate Your Goals: Be clear about your stated goals, inputs, and outputs, and create a clear picture of what success looks like.
  6. Integrate Learning Platforms: Use learning tools (like community sites, LMS, etc.) to help clarify what it means to be an activist, and how to get involved.
  7. Continually Measure and Adapt: Think about what you can measure to ensure progress is being made, and track it so that you know your efforts are working. If something isn't working, continuous measurement allows you to isolate individual factors and experiment with different approaches.
  8. Embrace the Multichannel World: Use a variety of communication channels, both internal and external, to keep reinforcing key elements and impact of the work. 

#4. Strong networking within companies, supported by internal infrastructure

Strong ties can be established through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which have a proven ability to “offer employees an opportunity to...address common issues and concerns, and receive support.” For movements to take hold, people need to be able to network with each other. Creating networking tools, events, and gatherings ensures that employees across the company's levels and business units who are trying to create change have the chance to meet each other, work with each other, and support each other. 

Even if you don’t have a cause that you are ready to be an activist for, you can enable activists across the company by helping to get this infrastructure into place. Good examples of networking tools include:

  1. Internal communication tools (like Yammer, Teams, and Slack, or even informal communication tools like whatsapp groups)
  2. Employee resource groups (Namely has a nice guide to help you develop these)
  3. Meetups and events (Hosting happy hours, coffee chats, or other informal events to connect people together)

#5. Utilizing social impact teams and/or policies that are already in place, or putting them in place

In our research on the “50 best companies to work for”, we found that companies with the greatest number of opportunities and incentives to get involved also had the best levels of employee engagement. This means that if you want activism to flourish at your company, you need to create more opportunities for people to get involved and channel their efforts. Policies like volunteer paid time off (VPTO), monetary incentives for the nonprofits people volunteer with, or grants available to teams that volunteers to support social impact projects all increase the level of involvement within your company.

Having a social impact leader, and someone in every physical office responsible for mobilizing employees to engage in social impact opportunities (even if in a voluntary capacity) is key to helping activism persist. These are the building blocks for future campaigns, and harnessing the existing “champions” across your company will catalyze efforts to mobilize change. If your company does not have this type of empowered presence in different offices, it’s a great place to start.

#6. A clear understanding of how the business can benefit from social responsibility efforts among employees at all levels

For employees to activate successfully, they have to understand business priorities so that they know how to best position their efforts. Efforts that any employee can help with include simply communicating business priorities to colleagues, encouraging colleagues to read the business’ annual mission statement and discuss it, and doing research on what a more sustainable future stage of the business could look like and sharing that with others. These simple steps will help pave the way to a shared vision of the future that people can get engaged with. We share more about how to build the business case in our guide to making business more socially responsible.

#7. Identification of ideas that you can activate towards

Beyond building the foundation to support employee activism covered in the previous six steps, here are some tangible ideas to get inspired by:

  1. Advocate to have an employee represented on the Board of Directors
  2. Urge your company to only spend corporate dollars with ethical organizations (unlike how Amazon, Geico, and others are spending money, and therefore enabling, corrupt websites)
  3. Initiate requirements around supply chain and/or sourcing, like Patagonia
  4. Create supply chain transparency, like Icebreaker
  5. Build coalitions with other companies, like the Salesforce Pledge 1% campaign
  6. Build a skills-based volunteering program that integrates with leadership development, like Microsoft's MySkills4Afrika program
  7. Use your core business product and/or service to support the social sector, like Tableau’s Service Corps Mission Projects

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. (Margaret Mead)

Now, you may be asking yourself, will these pillars actually push my company do the right thing? After all, the headlines about companies like Google and Amazon cracking down on employee activists send a discouraging message. That concern is real, but doing what is right even if that isn't what is comfortable comes with the territory of activism. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and we wouldn’t have an activist like Greta Thunberg as Person of the Year.

But remember that, at the end of the day, nothing changes without grassroots support. Indeed, grassroots efforts are exactly what lead to real, meaningful change. While no single initiative can change the environmentally degrading and economically unequal course of capitalism, those working within the system have a unique opportunity to shape its future in a more sustainable and equitable direction - creating a global system that can lift people out of poverty and care for our planet.

We hope the seven pillars provided above equip you with the guidance you need to help make your company a place where employees can activate change. Remember, even the most financially motivated CEOs believe that companies should do more to help all stakeholders, and by aligning yourself with these principles, you will help your company achieve this goal.

If you need additional help or guidance on your journey to affecting meaningful change, we hope you’ll apply to be a MovingWorlds Institute Fellow.