Employee Activists Speak Out
Print Issue: November 2019
Nearly four in 10 American employees say they have spoken up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over a controversial issue affecting society, according to Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (UP)Rising, a report from Weber Shandwick, United Minds, and KRC Research. A further 11 percent of U.S. employees are potential employee activists, and they have considered speaking out.
Most U.S. employees believe they have the right to speak up about their employers, either in support of the organizations or against them.
These employee activists have recently expressed their opinions on employers’ actions through open letters, social media posts, or walkouts in response to allegedly unhealthy products, media spending around political or societal issues, or severance packages paid to executives fired for alleged sexual misconduct.
In August, more than 1,300 Google employees signed a petition demanding that the company publicly commit to not supporting government agencies that are involved with separating and detaining immigrants. The petition was timed to coincide with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s bidding period for a cloud computing contract. In June, employees at online furniture retailer Wayfair walked out of the business’s headquarters to protest the sale of furniture to migrant child detention facilities.
Employee activists are most likely to be millennials (48 percent), followed by Gen Xers (33 percent), and baby boomers (27 percent). Millennials are more likely than older generations to believe that, individually, they can make a difference in society—77 percent say they can make a difference by speaking out on controversial issues.
Recent employee activism activity has targeted other employees and top leaders at the organization, and 35 percent of employees who take action are hoping to get the attention of the general public. They are less likely to want attention from the organization’s financial investors or the news media.
Employees who engage in activist behavior are most likely to initiate a conversation with another employee or other employees about an issue, opening the possibility for activism to grow internally and potentially externally, the report said. Approximately 20 percent of employee activists would share or post an opinion or comment about the organization on social media or an online forum or express an opinion at a companywide meeting or forum.
Only three percent of employee activists quit their jobs and let their employers know they were leaving because they disagreed with the company’s stance on an issue. A tenth of employee activists would encourage others not to work for their employer over an issue.
Employee activists primarily aim to influence their employer’s policies and actions (54 percent of survey respondents), and 46 percent hope to influence public opinion generally or specifically regarding their employer’s reputation.
Only 35 percent of employees surveyed said employers encourage activism, and 79 percent of those who speak up on controversial topics acknowledge they are risking their jobs.
The Weber Shandwick report recommends that organizations embrace employee activism as a positive force to propel the organization’s reputation; ensure that corporate purpose and culture are expressed to employees during interviews, onboarding, and throughout their tenure; be mindful of what is on employees’ minds; cultivate a culture of openness and transparency; establish a response protocol to employee activism; clearly articulate company values; and make the organization’s values part of employee activism solutions.