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7 Keys for CEOs as Study Shows ‘Employee Activism’ on Rise

Recent headlines have heralded the changing the role of corporations.

For example, just last month the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation to promote “An Economy That Serves All Americans,” announcing the “release of a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation signed by 181 CEOs who commit to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.

An emerging trend for CEOs and boards to note: Employee activism -- "a movement in which employees are speaking up about their employers" -- is on the rise.As CNBC reported: “The reimagined idea of a corporation drops the age-old notion that corporations function first and foremost to serve their shareholders and maximize profits. Rather, investing in employees, delivering value to customers, dealing ethically with suppliers and supporting outside communities are now at the forefront of American business goals.”

The move came as so-called “corporate activisim” has been on the rise, as the role and view of business has changed over the last years. Indeed, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer released earlier this year showed that “my employer” is the most trusted institution. The report notes that “trust has changed profoundly in the past year with “my employer” emerging as the most trusted institution. Globally, ‘my employer’ (75 percent) is significantly more trusted than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent), government (48 percent) and media (47 percent).”

Study: Employee Activism

Now a Weber Shandwick study has taken a deeper look at an emerging — and powerful — aspect of the trend that CEOs and boards will want to note: Employee activism — “a movement in which employees are speaking up about their employers” — is on the rise. (See slides at end of this post)

The study is titled “Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (UP)Rising.” Among the highlights:

  • Nearly four in 10 employees (38 percent) report that they have spoken up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over a controversial issue that affects society.
  • 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).
  • Among recent Employee Activists, the most common targets of their attention were other employees (46 percent) and top leaders at the organization (43 percent).
  • 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 of the organization (12 percent) and the news media (11 percent).

Said Weber Shandwick’s then-CEO (now Chairman & CEO, IPG’s Constituency Management Group and Executive Chairman) Andy Polansky: “Weber Shandwick identified the CEO and corporate activism movement early on. For that reason, we have been monitoring several well-publicized instances of employee activism and wanted to help companies better understand the risks and rewards of this new dynamic. Our new research found that the majority of employees, particularly Millennials, believe that they are right to speak up for or against their employers when it comes to hot-button issues that impact society. As employee activism continues to gather steam, leaders need to be prepared to listen and respond.”

Related story: Shareholder Activism in Europe, APAC on Rise

The study notes that “Employees believe they have the power to make change in society, [and] Millennial employees are on the march: 71% of employees feel they can make a difference in society, with 62% believing they can make a greater impact than business leaders can. Millennials are significantly more likely than older generations to feel empowered.”

Further, employees see justification for employee activism: “Most U.S. employees believe employees are right to speak up about their employers, whether they are in support of them (84%) or against (75%). The belief that employees have a right to speak up in support of their employers is consistent across generations. Millennials are the only generation that think employees are just as right to speak out against their employers as they are to support (82% vs. 85%, respectively).”

Rise in Employee Activism

The study comes as evidence of increasing employee activism increases. As the New York Times notes: “Tech workers at Silicon Valley’s largest companies have engaged in an unusual degree of activism over the past few years — and it has gotten results. At Google, employees have written letters and signed petitions to force their leaders to address issues such as how artificial intelligence is used in products. Last November, 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout to protest the firm’s handling of sexual harassment, leading to new company policies. Workers at Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Salesforce have also pushed for various changes.”

What is driving the trend? As Forbes explains: “A shift in generational values, to start. Millennials—and Gen Z not far behind them—care far more for the big picture than they do personal interest. The expectation now is that the businesses they buy from and work for think of society and environment alongside profit, and make a meaningful contribution to people, communities, society and the economy.”

7 Keys for CEOs on Employee Activism

So what should CEOs and other executives do? Forbes notes that “Inherently shifting the nature of recruitment and consumer demand, the values held by millennials are also creeping into the C-Suite and board room, as this generation come into positions of power.”

Weber Shandwick offers seven “guidelines for navigating the new wave of employee activism”:

  1. Embrace employee activism as a positive force to propel your reputation and your business.
  2. Ensure your corporate purpose and culture are known from the point of applicant interview and onboarding through employee tenure.
  3. Be mindful of what is on employees’ minds.
  4. Cultivate a culture of openness and transparency.
  5. Establish a response protocol.
  6. Clearly articulate and communicate your company’s values.
  7. Make your company’s values part of the solution.