Your employees: Advocates, activists or agitators?

We live in volatile times – political upheaval, a looming climate catastrophe, human rights crises, a global pandemic. For many people, recent years have been characterised by a lack of moral leadership from political institutions – and they have turned their expectations on to businesses and brands to fill that gap. In a recent EY study, almost three-quarters of the general population agreed they want CEOs to take the lead on change instead of waiting for governments to act.    

This desire for something more from businesses is even more urgent when they are your employer: study after study shows that employees are seeking shared values and an aligned sense of purpose with their employer. They want their employer to stand for something in a world full of uncertainty and moral vacuums. It’s a trend that will accelerate as Gen Z come into the workforce, who grew up with social media, online publishing platforms and petition tools at their fingertips. 

These expectations of business are a huge opportunity for employers. Alignment of values and purposes between employers and employees leads to greater productivity and even to advocacy. When US employees were asked in a 2017 study how they would respond if their company tried to meaningfully influence an important societal issue, 59% said they would be more likely to recommend their company’s products/services and 53% said they would be more likely to increase their overall level of engagement in their work each day.

But what happens if companies don’t listen to their employees or deliver on these high expectations? Employees are not afraid to speak out. We’ve all seen images of employees from google, Wayfair and adidas protesting their own employers. Last year, global public relations firm Weber Shandwick found that 4 in 10 employees have “spoken up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over a controversial issue that affects society.” 

How can we embrace this passion and commitment from employees for the benefit of both business, employees and society as a whole? I believe that the right communications and engagement from business can conduct a clever alchemy that turns employee activism into positive action from business and into advocacy from employees. But without that engagement, activism can all too easily spill over into agitation and the kind of visible protests that damage reputation. 

I think there are three key drivers of success in this area: Purpose, Platforms and People

We know that purpose-driven organisations significantly out-perform “profit-only” focused organisations. The key to engaging employee activists is to identify where their passions and desires intersect with your stated purpose and values. That will guide you how to respond to issues – and where there is alignment, there is huge opportunity to harness activism and drive advocacy. 

But as a business, you have to be prepared to take action to meet employee concerns, in line with your purpose. Let’s be clear about what we mean by action: it does not mean changing your twitter handle to a black square or a Pride flag. It means looking at the commercial heart of your business, at your hiring practices, at your product development, at your marketing, at the leadership. At the causes you support, and the partnerships you build with civil society over the long-term. 

Businesses need to provide platforms for activist networks to flourish and to create a open and honest dialogue with the company. Digital communications and collaboration platforms are an integral part of this, particularly for multi-national companies and even more so in the days of Covid.  We should encourage dialogue and debate on those platforms, and listen to – don’t monitor! – what employees care about. 

With the speed of the news cycle, and pop-up politics changing the issues landscape in a matter of hours, we’re all going to need a better finger on the pulse of employee opinion on key topics. Artificial intelligence look likely to offer opportunities through sentiment analytics platforms. Certainly we need to know and understand what employees are thinking and feeling in real-time.  

To prevent activism spilling over into agitation, your communications platforms need to take your employees along a journey towards advocacy – from being aware of your position on an issue; to understanding the detail of it and having had an opportunity to question it; to being capable of articulating and endorsing that position, and finally to being prepared to advocate for it. This means finding the right combination of platform, content, systems and processes, underpinned by a clear, well-evidenced, tested narrative to provide the right behavioural nudge at each stage of the advocacy journey. 

And now to people. The reality is that many of these issues are human issues, caused by humans, experienced by humans – and to respond to them requires a good dose of humanity. And yet sorry still seems to be the hardest word for many corporations – which is clear if you have followed the story of Julia Bond, the adidas employee who spent many months protesting outside her employer’s office in Portland, Oregon in the US.  Her protests continued because although adidas had pledged money to different racial equality causes and instigated internal programmes to address diversity and inclusion, they struggled to say one simple word: sorry. If you’re not prepared to acknowledge errors and be humble about the challenges of the journey you are on, no amount of cash will save you from your employees’ criticism.  

Of course, the person who really sets the stage for employee activism – or chooses not to – is your CEO. The empathetic CEOs we require in these uncertain times will have to create new channels for listening and responding to employees’ concerns. 

When Salesforce employees protested the company’s decision to sell software to the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, its CEO Marc Benioff did just that. He created an Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology, to discuss and debate the issues that employees had raised. 

What Benioff said at the time is a salutary lesson to us all: “I might be called an ‘activist CEO,’ because I’m responding to what my employees want. But the reality is that if you don’t do that, you are not going to be the CEO. We have a lot of examples in Silicon Valley, where CEOs were ‘fired’ by their employees because they did not listen.”