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Employee Engagement: In an Era of Activism

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Citizens are mobilizing around various social and environmental issues at a larger scale than ever before, bringing issues they care about into the workplace. Shifting internal and external stakeholder expectations, societal volatility and an accelerated news cycle have all contributed to a charged environment in which empowered employees are standing up in their workplaces and demanding change from within.

The last few decades have seen corporate responsibility mature from issue-specific philanthropy to full integration of ESG into company strategy. In the earlier stage, corporate responsibility often meant engaging employees in various social and environmental–focused programs. It also involved securing buy-in and support from employees in order to build a sustainable culture in the workplace.

Employees are moving beyond the confines of traditional CSR structures laid out by their workplaces, taking stances on charged issues often ahead of their employers and pressuring leadership to do the same.

As companies have integrated sustainability into their business models and operations, employee expectations of their workplaces have been heightened and, in some cases, even outpaced their employer’s level of action. Traditional programs are still expected but there is a sharper focus on corporate advocacy and purposeful work. Employees are moving beyond the confines of traditional CSR structures laid out by their workplaces, taking stances on charged issues often ahead of their employers and pressuring leadership to do the same. Rather than resist internal employee activism, companies should embrace and leverage this trend to further engage with their employee base.  

The changing social contract

Internally, employee expectations of their workplace have shifted beyond personal benefits, equity and opportunities for growth. More and more stakeholders are expecting shared value creation, accountability and transparency from their employers (Common Threads, 2018). Purpose-driven missions are becoming table stakes, as is the expectation of heightened transparency and availability of accurate company information. While more research is required on how sector and pay-grade contingent this mindset is, numerous studies show that employees are becoming more concerned about the potential impact of their employer. 

In the fight to attract and retain talent, companies are hard-pressed to rethink how they are contributing to society, and employees feel newly empowered to make demands from their workplaces. Around 4 in 10 employees report that they have spoken up to either support or criticize their employer’s action on a controversial issue. New groups such as ClimateVoice, launched by Facebook’s former sustainability chief, are helping further enable employees to press for more transformative actions from their workplaces.

There is now public anticipation for businesses to use their societal influence for good not just within the company but externally as well.

The modern corporation

Companies have worked to self-promote as more than just a workplace and humanize themselves in the eyes of society, which in turn has created new expectations of a business’s role. There is now public anticipation for businesses to use their societal influence for good not just within the company but externally as well. Business Roundtable recently redefined its mission to not just serve shareholders and make a profit, but to “create value for all our stakeholders.” This is especially relevant for companies that have historically promoted their mission as working for the common good; when company actions come to light that don’t align with those legacy values, employees feel empowered to say something. Over the last year, coalitions of protesting employees at Google and Microsoft have penned open letters to their employers and staged walkouts to urge more dramatic action on climate change, not only within operations but in the context of external contracts with fossil fuel companies and other actions from corporations that impede climate change regulatory reform.

Internally, companies must grapple with the fact that more means for communicating and organizing now exist for workers, providing collaborative channels that are not controlled by the company. On these new platforms and social media, issues can quickly and organically gain traction and galvanize action within the workplace. For example, employees at Wayfair were able to organize walkouts after it came to light that the company was supplying furniture to immigrant detention centers. On top of that, social media and an accelerated news cycle have heightened how quickly a company is expected to respond to and address an issue.

Citizens around the world are increasingly aware of environmental concerns and hazards around their individual health and the state of the planet. Beyond mitigating the impacts of their own lifestyle, there is a greater understanding of how one’s own employer may be contributing to the current environmental crisis. Amazon workers have rallied to publicly criticize their employer’s negative environmental impacts via open letters and walkouts, despite company restrictions on public engagement. While CEO Jeff Bezos recently announced a new fund to help fight climate change, an internal employee advocacy group noted that this does not change Amazon’s overall policies that are accelerating climate change.

How can companies engage?

Shifting expectations in the employee base, increased awareness of environmental concerns and newfound empowerment has all culminated in an environment in which companies must differentiate themselves to engage their proactive employees. The trend towards increased employee advocacy does not appear to be slowing, and companies of all sizes can benefit from some best practices outlined below.

  • Listen: Companies may think they have a grasp on employee perspectives, but it is important to continue listening to gauge internal temperatures on various issues. For example, in 2019 the majority of Americans favored stricter gun regulations, as opposed to several years prior. Listening to employees and keeping an eye on reactions to larger political or social circumstances will prevent being caught by shifting moods. Town halls or fireside chats help cultivate an open dialogue internally, and create an environment where everyone feels heard.
  • Communicate: Keeping employees informed of company action on a regular basis is an important form of engagement, whether it’s by written, verbal or digital means. According to Weber Shandwick, few employees feel like they are being communicated with, listened to or kept in the loop, and many employees cannot confidently describe company goals. Proactive and effective communication maintains a level of transparency and accountability, even if that progress is slow, so employees understand where their employer is at on their journey.
  • Advocate: According to All In, corporate advocacy is by definition controversial, as it addresses issues on which opinion can diverge dramatically. Taking a stand, even if it’s one with which half of your stakeholders disagree, is an indicator of strong cultural values. Explicitly supporting participation in public protests or other advocacy-based actions will tap into employee energy and help further drive positive impact.

By embracing the values and actions of their employees rather than viewing such advocacy as a business risk, companies can authentically engage with their base in this new era of employee activism.

About the author

Liora Hostyk
Liora Hostyk

Liora is an ESG analyst based in New York, focused on sustainability strategy analysis and research. She has experience in environmental compliance, corporate responsibility and M&A due diligence.

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