How to Respond to Employee Activism

November 14, 2019

How to Respond to Employee Activism

Many employees want to do meaningful work and they want their employer to either support or align with their values and identities. When that doesn’t happen, employees generally have three choices: leave the organization, try to bring change within the organization, or just shut up and deal with it. The last option is probably the worst for the organization because it leads to lowered employee engagement.

However, companies can provide a relief valve that allows for employees to express themselves when they rise up against a decision or organize themselves to advocate for change within the organization. In this article, I outline two models employers can use to address employee activism.

The Emergence of Employee Resource Groups

Employee affinity groups, employee resource groups (ERGs), or employee networks provide one way for organizations to provide space for activism and various identities. In the 1980s and 1990s, we saw the rise in employee activism ultimately channeled into affinity groups and other networks. These groups initially focused on identities that had faced marginalization or discrimination at work. They are a great example of leveraging tension and challenges in a productive way. 

For example, African-American employees, LGBT employees, women, and employees with disabilities came together within their respective identify groups for purposes such as:

  • Seeking changes in their employers’ policies and practices,
  • Providing a location for networking and support, and
  • Advocating that their employer become active in broader social change.

Affinity groups have become a staple in many organizations and serve as a great example of companies leveraging employee activism for competitive advantage. Many of these groups help recruit diverse employees, provide diverse perspectives for understanding new markets, and serve as brand ambassadors. 

In some organizations, these networks have expanded beyond traditional identity groups to include any group with a shared affinity. My favorite example of this is Brown-Forman, the owner of brands like Jack Daniel’s, Korbel, and Finlandia. They have a non-drinkers employee resource group called SPIRIT, for those who work every day in a business centered on alcohol, but choose not to partake. 

Dealing with Activism in Today’s Polarized Environment

In our hostile political climate, employees continue to want their interests and affinities affirmed. However, we can learn lessons from the early LGBT activist groups, who advocated for things such as non-discrimination statements and domestic-partner benefits. Slowly and steadily those groups changed the corporate landscape. Those activists who ultimately had success worked closely with executives in a collaborative way by asking and collaborating—not by demanding. Executives need to provide space for that collaboration and asking to occur.

When employee activists rise up in support of a cause, employers have to decide if activists’ desires align with organizational values. If so, change can occur more quickly. If not, executives can ask themselves how they can work with activists to find overlapping interests. Employee activism provides a great platform to channel employees’ energies into engagement, which remains a problem in so many organizations. 

To channel activism into employee engagement, executives can work to find common ground by:

  • Letting the activists know they have a sincere interest in hearing out their concerns.
  • Engaging in an in-person meeting and hearing concerns in a non-defensive way. It’s tempting to try to do a lot of explaining about how the concerns are already being addressed or how they’re unfounded. Don’t do that—start by just listening.
  • Eventually, executives need to work on finding common ground. Executives can sponsor a structured meeting where a disinterested party (or preferably a neutral professional facilitator) works to bring out overlapping interests. Another option would involve encouraging the group to form an affinity group to make requests to the organization. The liaison to the affinity group can help in identifying common ground.

Return on Investment

Sometimes employee activists take on very specific niche issues and executives might be tempted to dismiss the concerns. However, example after example shows that organizations taking these concerns seriously can ultimately establish themselves as a preferred employer or open themselves up to a new customer market they had not previously considered. Regardless of the specific approach taken by executives to resolve the situation, patience and having an open mind are essential to address this potential employee engagement opportunity. 

The Authors: 

Rod Githens, Ph.D., is the Alexandra Greene Ottesen Endowed Chair at University of the Pacific.