Why employee activism needs to feature in your HR strategy

Following their recent research into the topic, Megan Reitz and John Higgins explain the importance of focusing on speaking truth to power

The signs are that employees are increasingly speaking up about wider social and environmental issues in the workplace. They and other stakeholders have high expectations that organisations move beyond simply focusing on short term, shareholder value and also pay attention to their impact on the wider world and the responsibility they have for it. 

Millennials seem more likely to be willing to hold their leaders to account, watching closely what gets said on social media that illustrates how others interpret what their organisations get up to. Businesses can’t control when and where they’ll be thrust into the public gaze both for their action and their inaction.

This can be a scary new world for HR practitioners used to a more self-contained understanding of where an organisation’s responsibilities begin and end. They are aware that activists’ issues are frequently contentious and require thoughtful engagement, facilitation of differing perspectives and credible action – all things that busy managers can be woefully ill-prepared to give as they continue to rush to meet this year’s stretch objectives.

We’ve spent the last year researching employee activism as part of our wider long-term project examining ‘speaking truth to power’. Activism as a term is clearly a loaded one. It conjures up thoughts of protest and violence for some; purpose, values and inspiration for others. As Ruchika Tulshyan, author of The Diversity Advantage, explains: “What is rebellion to one person is a matter of human rights to another.”

To us, activism is about ‘voices of difference’ that challenge the status quo. And some organisational leaders are more up for this than others. We’ve seen leaders respond by attempting to suppress this activist voice. Coinbase in the US is now a case study of this: in a blog that went viral, CEO Brian Armstrong told his staff that if they wished to be at an ‘activism focused’ company they would be helped to move elsewhere – and more than 60 employees took him up on the offer. 

We’ve seen leaders say the right things, come up with the necessary platitudes in response to the issue of the day – and then their lack of commitment shines through when it becomes clear they have no intention of putting their money where their mouth is.

We’ve also met leaders who are activists themselves – who seem to genuinely engage in dialogue with employees and in some cases positively encourage their employees to be activists too (Patagonia is a case study here).

So how does your organisation respond? Does it make up policy when it is hit by the latest issue of the day, or is this something that has been tabled in the boardroom and positioned in the strategic plan? However you choose to respond, it’s a good idea to at least make a thoughtful choice rather than be caught on the back foot. 

In our research we’ve developed a mnemonic – ACTIF – to identify five key sets of questions that you might consider in formulating your response.

  • Authority: Who has what power in the organisation and how is it exercised? Is it seen to be held at the top and what they say goes, or is it seen as dispersed with talented employees increasingly influential?
  • Concern: How much does this issue matter for your stakeholders? Are you aware of how much it matters?
  • Theory of change: Do you believe that change in your organisation results from decisions by leaders who manage the process and determine what is inside or outside that agenda? Or do you see your organisation as being interdependent and interrelated with society and the environment, meaning that what you do is reflected back in society, and vice versa?
  • Identity: Do you regard yourself as an activist HR leader? How does your leadership team view themselves? Is your organisation proudly a rule maker, taker or even breaker?
  • Field: What has and is happening locally, in your industry and globally that affects your agenda right now? For example, global outcry at the killing of George Floyd, or localised environmental degradation as a result of your industry’s actions.

Notice if you feel like you need to answer these questions yourself – or at the leadership away day – or whether you assume these questions need to be addressed with employees. This appears to be a key difference in the HR directors we have interviewed – those who seek to control and those who know this, at heart, is a fundamental question of ‘not knowing’ and an ongoing journey in dialogue with voices of difference.

Megan Reitz is professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, and John Higgins is an organisational consultant and coach