How employers can make the most of activism in the workplace

Millennials and Generation Z are particularly interested in social change, says Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, so businesses must learn how to capitalise on this

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

As the world is reeling from the events in Ukraine, we have witnessed unprecedented action from businesses taking a stance. Measures against Russia have emerged in sanctions, donations, and public statements of support. The stance taken by leaders elicits timely conversations around the role of organisations beyond business as usual. But, what does that mean in today's environment?

As workplaces compile multiple generations working together, leaders find themselves having to consider issues beyond their primary business operations. In all sectors, the ESG agenda has grown exponentially. Globally, civil society has had to step in to address gaps in government provision to support. Civil society, also known as the third sector (according to the World Economic Forum), covers all collective action beyond government and corporations. The divide between corporates and civil society is more ambiguous than a standard textbook definition. ESG growth sees more innovative collaborations and partnerships emerge to address social justice and change. ESG has created the platform for leaders to set organisation-wide agendas and strengthen connections and impact locally and globally. The alignment of the UN SDGs has further strengthened a strategic approach to ESG as companies sign up for this agenda. However, the social responsibility sector in organisations is experiencing disruption as we are beginning to see the rise of activism at work.

While ESG is a strategic, planned, and budgeted activity, activism is driven by individuals who bring their projects, passion, and voluntary projects into the workplace. Activism is entrepreneurial in its nature and how it unfolds. Since 2017, we have witnessed global waves of social change. Every year has been defined by the rise of a worldwide social movement. #MeToo, which caught international attention in 2017, has been developing since 2006. Greta Thunberg inspired a step-change in climate action with protests starting in 2018. In 2020, amid the global lockdowns, mass protests were held in major cities in response to the murder of George Floyd. The subsequent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests presented a watershed moment for many organisations.

#BlackoutTuesday was collective actions by artists, museums, and social media companies to demonstrate their support for the Black Lives Matters protests. Many businesses participated; according to, more than 950 brands stepped up with support, including Apple, Viacom, CBS and Amazon. However, these deeds turned sour as many global businesses were accused of hypocrisy. They jumped on the BLM action while offering unequal working conditions and compensation packages for staff from ethnic minority backgrounds. We have seen similar challenges with claims of greenwashing, most notably Volkswagen's emissions scandal. Organisations have become more nuanced in supporting global campaigns and aligning these messages with their actions to their employees and markets.

In global organisations today, employees across different age groups present wildly divergent views towards what they expect from work and their managers. Gallup published a survey in 2019 of attitudes among millennials to show a shift in mindsets with a greater emphasis on purpose and choosing to work with organisations “with a mission and purpose". The survey found that 55 per cent of millennials are not engaged at work; the first time this figure has tipped over 50 per cent in any age group. The trends and characteristics of millennials; fewer attachments, delayed responsibilities and the need to provide a stable income, hyper-connected globally by virtue of technology, unconstrained by pre-existing norms and so willing to push for change and create new definitions across social and gender divides and a stronger focus on ideal alignment between work and life in striving for purpose. More recently, research by EY on activism among Gen Zs in the workplace identified five typologies and notably a shift from dreaming to action:



Authentic activists: motivated by obligation to save the world; driven by fear of what will happen with inaction.

22 per cent 

16 per cent

Secluded perfectionists: focus on being the best, driven by passion

20 per cent

15 per cent

Big dreamers: ambitions to do well and make money, idealistic rather than action-orientated

18 per cent

18 per cent

Stress strivers: high performance, driven by a fear of not being good enough

35 per cent

35 per cent

Carefree constituents: go with the flow – not drivers of change but will integrate it into mainstream.

5 per cent

16 per cent

The rise in authentic activists demonstrates an increase in individual action bubbling away across all levels in the organisation. For leaders, individual activism creates the conditions to align individual drivers with organisational attention, reinforcing a sense of purpose and commitment to social change based on the energy and passion of colleagues. Moving from the concept to reality, here are specific actions for leadership to consider:

  1. Provide opportunities for voluntary days where employees can allocate time to work on their projects of purpose. This approach adds more value than a corporate voluntary day that often becomes conflated with a team-building effort.

  2. Encourage colleagues to share what they work on voluntarily and use these ideas to crowd-source projects for support.

  3. Validate and recognise the value of voluntary work to provide more comprehensive skills that inevitably support career and leadership progression. Consider a volunteer who has developed experience in negotiating, convincing others to give time and resources, agility to deliver with limited results, and managing time well.

The pandemic and global events have hit businesses hard. Millennials’ and Gen Z's characteristics in the workplace show the focus on inequalities in society are now becoming part of the business as an unusual agenda, and one which leaders cannot afford to ignore. In fact, dialogues around purposeful work and voluntary work allow leaders to understand colleagues better. Leaders learn best when they listen to what drives their colleagues. The talent coming through the pipeline puts activism and purpose at the heart of their working lives.

Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj is a professor of diversity, leadership and innovation at HEC Paris in Qatar and co-author of Futureproof Your Career