Many employees are asking, if not demanding, that their companies become more engaged in environmental and social issues. Employee activism, however, can be disruptive and divisive. Whatever a company’s position on social issues, the best response is to be pre-emptively clear and consistent on the parameters of the company’s social engagement.
More than ever before, employees are asking the companies they work for to take a stand and become actively involved in supporting environmental and social causes. The increasingly visible activism and social engagement of employees is in large part due to changes in technology and culture. On the technology front, internal messaging boards and personal social media enable employees to communicate, person-to-person or among like-minded groups, more directly than in the past. Culturally, the days of employees spending their entire working lives with one company are long gone. Between remote work and job fluidity, the relationship between employer and employee has changed dramatically, and employees are not afraid, nor do they believe it’s inappropriate, to have and express opinions on company activities.
Employee activism does carry its own set of risks, however, for both employees and employers. Such activism can distract employees from their work, and also alienate other employees who do not share the activists’ opinions. Employee activism can also draw attention to actions or opinions of the company or its executives that may hurt the company brand.
At the same time, however, companies need to be careful about restricting employee activism. Such restrictions can lower the morale and motivation of talented employees—and also harm a company’s reputation.
Companies have reacted in different ways to the activist push from employees. For example, crypto-currency company Coinbase publicly declared that it would not engage in “broader societal issues” that are “unrelated to our core mission,” citing the distraction and internal division created by corporate engagement in causes. In contrast, in response to its employees urging Shopify to support indigenous people, the Canadian company partnered with indigenous organizations to help teach them entrepreneurial skills—thus engaging in social activism without expanding beyond its core mission.
Finally, the Australian mining company BHP believes it has an obligation to help society in any way it can, from reducing carbon emission in its supply chain to helping indigenous populations to ensuring the safety of its miners and the human rights of its employees.
Many companies have found different approaches to mitigate the risks of corporate social activism. Although the specific approaches may differ—from the exclusion of any activity to an all-in social engagement that becomes part of the brand—the efforts of these companies share three important elements:
A clearly defined mission and purpose. Developing a clear mission and values statement that lays out the parameters of a company’s social engagement intentions—which activities or commitments it will support, which activities or commitments it will not support—sends a message that the company has a political conscience but is making a conscious decision to do what it feels is best for the company, its employees and its customers.
Clear and consistent communication. The parameters or framework of the company’s social engagement must be clearly and consistently communicated to internal and external stakeholders. Communication to employees especially is of vital importance, helping them understand the boundaries that the company has set on employee social activism.
Vigilant oversight and consistent implementation. Once the mission and purpose of the company is developed and communicated, it must be implemented consistently. If a commitment is made, it should be honoured. If boundaries are set, they should not be breached. Of course, some flexibility may be required to respond to changing circumstances, but the company should remain in firm control of the social engagement agenda.
Political and social engagement is a complex and often emotional issue that is best managed through clarity. While not all employees, managers, shareholders or even customers will be happy with a company’s decisions on the scope of its environmental and social activities, pre-emptively staking a position can reduce potential disruptions or distractions.
In the best interests of the company, however, it may be helpful to gauge employee and customer sentiment on important issues while developing the mission and values statement that will guide future engagement.
Protests from Within: Engaging with Employee Activists. Stephen A. Miles, David F. Larcker & Brian Tayan. Stanford Closer Look Series (March 2021).
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