What’s next for employee activism?

After ‘ethical veganism’ was recently ruled a protected characteristic, Richard Peachey looks at how HR can best handle diverse perspectives

This month’s ruling from a UK judge that ethical veganism should be afforded the same protection from harassment and discrimination as a religion is another indication of the direction of travel. Diversity among employees is being appreciated and recognised in lots of positive ways – but it’s also leading to the drawing of some battle lines.

From now on, HR needs to be aware that any managers who insist team members work with animal-related products, or who make a jokey remark about eating habits, could be in trouble. And as more reasons are established for employees to feel they’re being singled out, to have a niggling grievance, the more ‘normal’ it becomes for employees to stand up for their particular cause. While the ruling doesn’t constitute an addition to the 2010 Equality Act – at least not yet – it does open up the opportunity for people to act out and test the legislation, which can be affected by precedent without needing to be amended. Employee activism is only going to evolve and grow in the coming years.

Providing equality of treatment to every employee and ensuring that their individual circumstances are respected, no set of beliefs is contravened and no bias detected is going to be a major challenge for HR in the coming decade. More complex forms of diversity can also mean that the issues affecting most people, a problem for society in general, don’t get the attention they deserve.

Employee activism looks to be a serious threat to engagement, recruitment and retention. But, then again, any staff grievance looks to be a problem when organisations are frozen by their culture – when the smallest of disagreements and misunderstandings turns into an issue, just because there’s no other way to handle the situation except for the formal disciplinary process.

And everything starts looking easier when people trust each other, and when conversations are open and mature in how they are handled. HR can ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to accommodate diverse needs and beliefs, at least when they don’t clash with the organisational mission and values. But it’s not going to stop those diverse perspectives, that individuality, from bumping up against other people. A workforce can’t be steamrollered into one single mass of mutual understanding and respect.

So it’s more urgent than ever that HR ensures bosses, managers and staff are able to have better, more mature conversations about themselves and their issues. That means opportunities for early resolution via mediation and methods like neutral assessment – and most of all, for them to be equipped with empathy, self-awareness and the best kinds of conversation skills. 

Each organisation needs to be working out what the reasonable concessions are for its own working environment and body of employees – not as a means of banning contrary views and perspectives, but to reach a working understanding and consensus. There should be nothing to be afraid of in employee activism, conflict or difficult conversations of any kind. They are the pathways to clearing the air, a new understanding and getting things done better, as long as the early stages of grievances don’t just meet a brick wall.

Richard Peachey is a consultant at CMP