Employee Activism as a Risk Management Opportunity
Preparing for the probability that employees, or those with whom they interact, will offend one another is a logical modern risk management strategy.
Hyper-polarization, fueled by misinformation and the mainstreaming of fringe beliefs, has significantly increased the likelihood that individuals in the workplace will disagree on emotionally charged issues—particularly if the content has been politicized.
Political activism has hit record highs. In the United States alone, Civis Analytics estimates that 23 million residents engaged in some form of protest during 2020, the largest numbers in recorded history. Sources for political information also changed during the past couple of years. Increasing numbers of individuals now rely on social media platforms for their political news, despite widespread distrust of social media platforms as sources of truth, and heightened awareness of the ways in which social media algorithms amplify polarization, found researchers for a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
As more people become locked inside their own echo chambers, political perspectives often deteriorate into partisanship, and conflict can arise when engaging with those of differing views.
For example, a 2020 Pew Research Survey found that nine in 10 Americans said there is strong conflict between those of different political parties.
The combination of increased activism and elevated divisiveness presents a heightened threat for conflict entering the workplace, particularly for corporations whose employees are returning to the office after working remotely.
These threats can take several forms.
As many corporations have learned, the workplace itself can become the object of employee activism if the workforce believes that the organization can—and should—do more about particular causes.
In the aftermath of a mass shooting at one of its stores, Walmart employees conducted walk-outs to protest the chain’s gun sales. Google employees also staged walkouts to protest lack of executive action on claims of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. And when cryptocurrency firm Coinbase attempted to stifle workplace activism by censoring dialogue not related to the corporate mission, 60 employees reportedly quit the company causing the directive to go viral.
Reputational damage and loss of talent are two prominent threats posed by employee activism. But the strategy to mitigate them should not overshadow the opportunity to fortify an organizational culture of safety, engaging in the challenge of accepting diversity of opinion without generating animosity.
Security professionals are positioned to play a key role in proactively assisting executives to manage employee activism in a manner that minimizes conflict and disruption.
An effective strategy relies on human intelligence—listening and gleaning information on the current priorities and perspectives of the workforce. True human intelligence requires emotional intelligence, relationships, and trust, which necessitates a security force that is well-integrated with, rather than siloed from, the workforce.
This information becomes the basis for strategic decision making. Different tactics are suggested by various findings. If there is general cohesion of thought among those within the company environment, there is an opportunity to strengthen workforce loyalty by subtle or overt forms of support for shared causes. These acts—from simple (mentioning the issue in a corporate newsletter) to significant (financial investment in an organization that supports a key issue)—can strengthen staff loyalty, a trait that supports workplace safety. Loyal employees are more likely to report unsafe conditions, comply with safety protocols, and resist unsafe or criminal activities.
If great disparity exists among employees, enlisting experts to help facilitate difficult dialogues models tolerance for non-disruptive engagement. Should the corporation be the target of advocacy—such as when Goya Foods was subject to a boycott for its CEO’s political comments or the backlash against Dr. Seuss Enterprises for deciding against reprinting a few of its titles due to racist depictions—identifying the informal advocate leaders in the workforce and initiating solution-focused conversations between these individuals and corporate leadership—even if what is being sought is not achievable—can assist in building trust, which is foundational for conflict resolution.
Clear communication of behavioral expectations for employees who experience significant disagreement is also an important part of a risk management strategy. Such expectations—which should be congruent with corporate culture—can span a continuum from pausing engagement in non-work-related discussions that cause disruption until a formal forum can be scheduled to the expectation that differences of opinion will be tolerated and respectful listening or disengagement are required.
Explicitly communicating these expectations in a statement that reinforces the corporation’s general commitment to diversity and intolerance for discrimination and harassment helps employees navigate a potentially divisive environment before it devolves into a more serious, conflicted one.
Decisions regarding workplace tolerance of visual displays—such as activist email signature blocks, Zoom backgrounds, and office décor—should also be explicit to preempt misunderstandings. Likewise, the workforce should be educated about general policies related to making public statements or participating in acts of civil unrest while wearing corporate insignia.
As with any risk management strategy, the tactics adopted as part of activism risk management need to reflect the culture and goals of the larger organization. And, as many corporations have learned in the past several years, when it comes to activism, the corporate culture may also need to expand to align with a more socially and politically engaged workforce.
An Exercise in Applying Contextual Intelligence
By using the COPE (Culture, Organizational values, Politics, and Environment) Framework to assess security challenges and potential flashpoints, leaders can help their institutions navigate complex situations and mitigate reputational risks. For a glimpse of this framework in practice, see the hypothetical case study below.
Entity: A small, rural liberal arts college in the United States with 700 students, 150 core and adjunct faculty, and 80 staff.
Challenge: A university that prides itself on diversity of thought and freedom of expression—and is legally bound to respect civil liberties and academic freedom—is experiencing increased incidences of campus disruption and conflict as students, staff, and faculty vocalize opposing views both on and off campus. The incidents are compromising the quality of campus life. Some in the campus community have reported that they are fearful that the conflict will become violent.
COPE Framework Analysis
Culture. Although a comparatively liberal work environment (flexible work schedules, relaxed dress code), the college’s employees and students represent diverse populations along every demographic. There is a shared belief in the value of education, although opinions vary as to whether education should principally advance societal or individual goals.
Organizational Values. The college has a strong and well-articulated commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence. Its core mission also includes supporting its graduates to apply the education they gain to resolve complex, real-world situations.
Politics. Prior to the amplified social and political polarization of the past several years, the college frequently confronted divisions among students, faculty, and staff with different worldviews. The use of words such as “safe spaces” and “triggers” are common when individuals are confronted with encounters or material that range from the uncomfortable to the legally unacceptable.
There are several lingering conflicts that have resulted from the perception that the college has “done nothing” in relation to protected actions by some within its constituencies. Additionally, security is aware that students in the emergency management program—which include a significant number of veterans and law enforcement-affiliated students—are feeling that the college is responding unevenly to some of the national events involving BIPOC individuals and the police.
Environment. The college is subject to U.S. state and federal laws related to harassment, discrimination, and Title IX. Faculty are also covered by a collective bargaining agreement and, consistent with academic institutions generally, enjoy broad freedom of expression under the concept of academic freedom.
Determination. The college holds monthly town halls for students, faculty, and staff. It determined that, on a quarterly basis, the college president will make the following points during his remarks:
- The college is committed to diversity, explicitly including diversity of thought and expression.
- Tolerance does not include tolerating the intolerable. The college will not tolerate harassment or discrimination—as legally defined—and any staff, student, or faculty member who believes they might be experiencing it such should contact human resources or an office of student affairs.
- When disagreements arise, individuals are expected to listen respectfully or disengage.
The college also determined that the diversity officer would create a reporting system for individuals who believed they experienced bias or microaggression, which a cross-disciplinary team would investigate. Additionally, the Title IX officer would partner with security to adapt the school’s sexual assault bystander intervention program to train staff on ways to effectively intervene if they witness a disagreement devolve into an argument.
Finally, the college’s chief academic officer and a few faculty members met with students from several programs, including emergency management, and scheduled a series of panel discussions involving law enforcement, local government officials, and community advocates to discuss local dynamics related to community policing.
Michael Center is the United Nations security adviser to Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Malta, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. His experience is focused on security risk management in high-risk, complex humanitarian and conflict environments. As the UNDSS Head of Office, Center serves as liaison between the United Nations, host governments, and the diplomatic community to strengthen analysis and crisis management preparedness for United Nations programs. Center is the chair of the ASIS International Extremism and Political Instability Community.
Diana M. Concannon is the dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, where she also serves as associate provost for Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships. She is a forensic psychologist and maintains a threat assessment and management consultancy. She is author of Kidnapping: An Investigator’s Guide and Neurocriminology: Forensic and Legal Applications, Public Policy Implications. Concannon is the co-vice chair of the ASIS International Extremism and Political Instability Community.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and are not reflective of their organizations.