Act now before employee activisim takes your entire organization by surprise

B2B employee activism
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Whether you think the recent walkout by Wayfair workers was a dumb stunt or a brave stand, I think we can agree the company sure didn’t see that one coming. By the time it was all over, its shares were down 5% and it had been shamed into donating $100,000 to the Red Cross.

The workers, who walked out to protest the company’s sale of furniture to an immigration shelter, join employees from Google, Whole Foods, Amazon and other companies who have taken their internal beefs to the streets.

You probably have all kinds of scenarios on your scary crisis planning list — product recalls, various awful ways to die, executive misbehavior, natural disasters and external activism – I think it’s time add a strategy for internal activism.

Three quarters of American Millennial employees expect their employers to have a position on social issues and even more think they should be part of the conversation when it comes to new legislation. This interest in aligning personal values with work and employers’ values, it seems likely we will see a lot more employee activism, at the same time as it is getting harder for employers to get out in front of this stuff.

In the first place, employers no longer control their employees’ abilities to communicate with one another and to organize. The Whole Foods activist group, Whole Workers, started as a Slack group griping about declining working conditions, layoffs and cost cutting before and during the chain’s acquisition by Amazon. Here’s a link to a great piece in OneZero in about the group.

Whether you like it or not, your employees are in their own WhatsApp, Facebook and Slack groups already – mostly doing benign things like swapping shifts and gossiping, but underestimate this at your peril. With groups in place and unmediated by managers, a little bit of push back can get a lot of traction very quickly, as we see in the Wayfair walkout.

Speaking of managers, we can’t really count on our front-line team leaders to be our zeitgeist bellwethers any longer. In the first place, most of them probably don’t know it’s kind of their job to keep tabs on culture and engagement, and to act as an early warning system for those sorts of problems. And secondly, more and more work is done remotely, away from direct supervision, and with little-to-no in-person interaction, it’s extremely difficult for managers to gauge the mood of the workforce.

Given that many activists say they just wanted a response from their manager, perhaps we need to arm our team leaders with some training so when employees ask questions about things like sustainability, compliance and equity, they don’t get brushed away with “that’s above my pay grade.” The truth is, employees have access to basically all the data they need to bolster an argument – they know who makes what, who sells what, where raw materials come from and where the waste goes. When people who know are asking hard questions of their managers, that’s a warning sign.

Indeed, it could well be that your managers are themselves activists. Whole Workers only gained momentum and publicity when senior people started leaking information to organizers and the media. Disillusionment can happen at any level of the organization, and in a tight labour market, your Eeyore employees have very little to lose by challenging your organization in public.

It’s tempting to dismiss activists as publicity-seeking whiners, but a Weber Shandwick report finds that only 11% want media attention whereas 43% want senior management’s attention. The Google walkout over the company’s poor response to sexual misconduct complaints certainly got that, and a little bit of action on their list of demands, but at what cost to the employer brand?

If employees are organizing at scale to get the attention of their managers and executive teams, then why aren’t we catching more of this in the early stages?

Since it seems unlikely that only big, iconic brands are at risk, it makes sense for all organizations to take this seriously and start pulling a plan together.  A good place to start is with your mission, vision and values. Especially the values: employees actually read those awful posters, and if your values turn out to be Cat Puke Values then you are already at risk for some activists to call you on it.

Shaky values in the presence of flashpoints such as organizational change, poor engagement, less-than-ideal working conditions and questionable partners or customers can blow up faster than you can say “let’s get a tiger team to take a look at that idea.”

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Elizabeth Williams
Elizabeth Williams is the President of Candler Chase Inc., a consulting firm specializing in employee communications and branding. She is a survivor of more than 20 years in the telecom, financial services and technology sectors, and can often be found blogging about brands and speaking at conferences. She keeps meaning to write a book.