In a world where people are surrounded by what they see as political inaction, the demands they have of their employers are changing. They expect CEOs to act as politicians. And they’re not afraid to hold their employers to account for failing to meet those expectations.

Welcome to the rise of employee activism. A seismic shift in the employer-employee relationship.

Workplace petitions, protests and walkouts are nothing new. But today’s activism is more than just pay disputes led by union reps.

Employees today are in sync with the inequalities in society. They can see through any contradictions between an organisation’s mission and values, and the business decisions it takes. And they’re now prepared to do something about it.

‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ may have held true for previous generations. But Millennials and iGen have completely different expectations of their work.

They seek value and purpose in what they do. Speaking out and challenging the status quo is second nature. And as digital natives, they’re harnessing the power of social media to build communities, rally colleagues, and ensure issues become viral in a heartbeat.

Businesses that have experienced activism have often been surprised by the strength of their employees’ convictions. Caught on the back foot, they’ve been forced into a reactive stance – managing reputational and brand damage first, and then the consequences that short-term disruption has on employee productivity.

Take the infamous mass walkout by Google employees in response to a lack of executive accountability over sexual harassment. Or more recently a ban on political discussions at work by software firm Basecamp – which reports suggest led to a third of the company’s employees walking out and the CEO issuing a public apology.

But old school ways of dealing with a new age challenge will not cut it anymore.

Today, the veil that separates our personal and professional lives has been lifted. Businesses have rightly invested heavily in employee engagement for years now.

They’ve asked people to bring their ‘real selves’ to work. They’ve encouraged them to play a greater role in the social causes they and their company advocates.

And for their part, employees have done exactly that. They don’t leave their beliefs or experiences at the door when they step into the work. And no longer see a reason to limit their activity.

So what does this mean for leaders trying to grapple with the growing expectations of their employees and a rising tide of internal activism?

As Millennials and iGen begin to dominate the workforce, companies in all sectors, and of all sizes, will inevitably begin to experience activism. It will shape the employer-employee dynamic for years to come.

The business decisions leaders make will always continue to matter. But the way Execs respond to big societal issues is now just as important.

Everyone wants a better society, and corporations have to respond to that. Being apolitical isn’t an effective strategy. Inaction isn’t neutral – and in itself sends out strong signals that can damage a brand.

Businesses and their leaders need to move beyond rhetoric, bland policy creation and soulless target setting for the sake of ‘good corporate governance’.

Instead, leaders should start asking themselves how they can use the assets and people within their organisations for societal good. Real, impactful change.

Businesses also need to understand there is a difference between reacting and responding to issues.

Knee-jerk reaction can lead to over promising and then under delivering. So don’t try and do it all yourself, and seek out the support of organisations and external experts who you can partner with to help drive meaningful action.

On-going two-way communications and dialogue between leaders and employees is also critical. But what matters most is genuine listening. Not to appease. But with the intent to really understand, co-create and act.

It’s about trying to better understand the issues that are most sensitive to employees.

As this will provide an organisation with an advance warning system for the decisions it makes that could ultimately spark internal unrest.

Employee activism is not something to be feared, but embraced. At its core it involves engagement, creativity and problem solving. And who wouldn’t want their people focused on that?

Employee activism is here to stay.

So rather than approach it as a fire to be put out, let’s start thinking about it as an opportunity to create real energy, enthusiasm and productive outcomes for employees, businesses and society as a whole.





David Garfinkel is the Director of Engagement at MSL, a full service connected communications agency. David has been working in communications for 25 years, specialising in employee engagement and business transformation for global organisations across multiple sectors.

He has led comms initiatives across the employee lifecycle from EVP creation to strategy communication and change campaigns and initiatives, including M&A, divestments, restructures, strategic alignment, and internal comms audits.