Employee Activism on the Rise

Nearly four in 10 American employees (38 percent) report that they have spoken up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over a controversial issue that affects society. These are Employee Activists. Millennials are the generation most likely to be Employee Activists (48 percent), a rate significantly higher than that of Gen Xers (33 percent) and Boomers (27 percent).

These findings come from Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (UP)Rising, a survey commissioned by global communications and marketing solutions firm Weber Shandwick, in partnership with United Minds and KRC Research.

Have ever spoken up to support or criticize employer’s actionsover a controversial issue that affects society

Total U.S. 
MillennialsGen XersBoomers
Prefer not to respond3333

*indicates significantly higher than other generations

“Weber Shandwick has been taking the pulse of CEO and corporate activism for several years now. As societal issues mount and political rhetoric stirs up emotions in the workplace, a new generation of Millennial employees may feel compelled to speak out more often in the hopes of making a difference or impacting their employer’s point of view or policies,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick. “We wanted to help companies better understand the risks and rewards of this new workplace dynamic to ensure that corporate reputations do not find themselves on shaky ground if no one is taking the employee feedback seriously.”

When asked to describe in their own words what they supported or criticized their employers for, topics varied and answers reflected both support and criticism. Some employees mentioned social issues pertaining to areas such as LGBTQ rights, gender equality, the environment, sexual harassment and discrimination. Other employees mentioned work-related issues such as pay, work environment, treatment of workers and business policies.

Employees See Justification in Employee Activism 
The vast majority of U.S. employees surveyed believe employees are right to speak up about their employers, whether they are in support of the employers (84 percent) or against (75 percent). The belief that employees have a right to speak up in support of their employers is consistent across generations (85 percent of Millennials, 84 percent of Gen Xers and 84 percent of Boomers). Millennials are the only generation that think employees are just as right to speak out against their employers (82 percent) as they are to support. Support for employees speaking up against their employers declines with age. Seventy-six percent of Gen Xers and 65 percent of Boomers believe employees are right to speak up against their employers.

Right of Employees to Speak Up

Total U.S. 
MillennialsGen XersBoomers
In support of their employer84858484
Against their employer7582*7665

*indicates significantly higher than other generations

Employees may think employees are right to speak up because of the impact they can have. Eight in 10 Employee Activists (79 percent) – those with experience in speaking up – agree that employees can make a difference by speaking out on controversial issues that affect society. A similar rate (75 percent) agree that employees can make an even greater impact on our world than the leaders who run organizations.

“The propensity of Millennial employees to feel that employees have a right to speak out against their employers’ actions on societal or workplace issues requires leaders to manage their work force differently,” said Kate Bullinger, president of United Minds, a change management consultancy within Weber Shandwick. “Because of the ubiquity of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, the wide variety of topics that can activate employees to speak out must be considered on a nearly daily basis today.”

Employee Activists Seek to Influence Employees and Senior Management
Among recent Employee Activists, the most common targets of their attention were inside their organizations: other employees (46 percent) and top leaders at the organization (43 percent). However, approximately one-third of those who took action were also hoping to get the attention of the general public (35 percent). They were less likely to want the attention of financial investors (12 percent) and the news media (11 percent).

Employee Activists were primarily seeking to influence their employer’s positions, policies and actions (54 percent). Many were also hoping to influence public opinion generally and their employer’s reputation (46 percent).

Employee Activism is Not Without Risk
While employees are in favor of activism, there is a perceived risk that accompanies it. Approximately eight in 10 employees (79 percent) agree that those who speak up on a controversial topic against their employers are risking their jobs. This view is consistent across generation (78 percent of Millennials, 79 percent of Gen Xers and 78 percent of Boomers). Even Employee Activists think doing so can put one’s job at risk (80 percent). There is also a perception among some employees that those who publicly criticize their employer are usually just trying to cause trouble (36 percent).

Guidelines for Navigating the New Wave of Employee Activism
Weber Shandwick recommends that organizations consider the following guidelines:

  1. Embrace employee activism as a positive force to propel your reputation and your business as an open and transparent organization. Employers need to align with the next generation of employees and their concerns about society and the workplace. The fact that many publicly speak out about their employers’ views and actions, whether it is to support or criticize, is an opportunity to build common ground.
  2. Ensure your corporate purpose and culture are known from the point of applicant interview and onboarding through employee tenure. Two-thirds of employees (65 percent) say that if they were considering a new job, they would take into account an employer’s stance on societal issues. Employee expectations must be aligned with the organizational culture from the outset. Employee activism can quickly become a reputation builder or destroyer in an era where employees have the motivation and means to raise issues if they become disillusioned and trust is not built from day one.
  3. Be mindful of what is on employees’ minds. Leaders should regularly gauge what is happening in the workplace or how the broader environment is likely to impact employees’ attitudes toward company actions and point of view. An employee culture audit and open forums where employees can safely speak their minds or debate current issues are beneficial.
  4. Cultivate a listening culture. Since the majority of employees believe that they are taking a risk when they speak up to support or criticize their employer, leaders should think about how they can motivate employees to share their opinions internally first. Better collaboration and easy-to-use communications tools will encourage employees to share their opinions internally before going elsewhere.
  5. Establish a response protocol. Employees who reach out to leaders to voice their opinions on a controversial or sensitive issue expect an acknowledgement or response. Setting up a process for responding, including who will respond and how to respond, will help build a culture of receptiveness and potentially deter future problems.
  6. Clearly articulate and communicate your company’s values. Employees expect employers to do business and take action in line with their corporate values. These values will provide the company with a compass to determine when to speak out.
  7. Make your company’s values part of the solution. Defining the returns you bring to shareholders, customers and employees is no longer enough. In this environment of political gridlock and disruption, companies are expected to contribute to addressing society’s complex challenges, whether they exist internally in the workplace or externally in broader society. Companies must be part of the solution or run the risk of being perceived as part of the problem.

Please click here for the report.

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