The link between an employee activism strategy, crisis response and business continuity

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Last time we looked at the rise of employee activism in organizations such as Wayfair, Google and Amazon. Dissatisfied with their organization’s actions, inactions or inattention, employees are more often than ever before taking their internal complaints to the streets. As many as 40% of your workers might be activists.

Employers, who can no longer control their workers’ abilities to communicate and organize at scale, need to think about how they will respond when employee activism hits their organization. Here are some tips for getting started on your plan.

An employee activism strategy has a lot in common with your overall crisis response or business continuity strategies. You need to consider the likely and unlikely scenarios that could arise and decide how you will respond, what you will do, what you will say, how you will keep things moving and so on.

 Root out dissonance, not dissidents

Getting to the scenarios is best started with a good, honest look at the things that can trigger employee activism. A great deal of activism can be traced to a disconnect between stated values and real-life actions.  Deloitte found that personal values have the greatest influence on how Millennials make decisions at work, and the ones most likely to stay are those who share the organization’s values.

Let’s start with your values. Ask yourself this: are our values Cat Puke Values? In other words, are they an inconvenient thing you sort of step in now and again, or does your organization actually live by them? For example, do your values speak to sustainability while your operations are busily generating tons of waste? Do you profess opportunity for all and then do most of your hiring externally? Do you claim integrity as a core value and then quietly cover up misdeeds?

Your employees know when this stuff is happening. They have access to the data, the videos, the reports and the files. They know when what you say and what you do don’t line up with each other and, more importantly, don’t line up with their personal values. And they are talking all about it with each other, with their families, with their friends. At some point, the dissonance becomes too much and they start talking to regulators, the media, the competition and everyone they’re connected with on their social media accounts. That’s a lot of people. Employee activism doesn’t have to look like a walkout; it can look like a single phone call.

First step with the values is to assess them honestly. For each value can you find objective evidence of how it is routinely applied in the organization? If you had to argue with an employee about whether or not your organization nurtures innovation, could you win that argument with facts? Conversely, is there any evidence that you are not acting in accordance to each value? If there is, or if you can’t really be sure how your organization lives up to its values, circle the ones that are problematic. You don’t have to change them (that’s a much bigger project) but you should acknowledge where there is dissonance because that’s a potential flashpoint.

Too many organizations ignore the dissonant in favour of the dissident. Those Eeyore employees who are going around complaining about stuff are easy to focus on and easy to help find the door. The problem is, when you send them packing or silence them, they just make their noises elsewhere. Like on WhatsApp or CNN.

Eeyore employees are fantastic detectors of values dissonance. Go find a few and instead of scolding them for being so darn negative, let them tell you what’s on their minds. The truth is, if they really didn’t want your organization to change, they probably would have left already. People who stay and point out things that aren’t working are probably more engaged than the folks who paste on a smile and coast through the day.

Follow the Feedback

The second bunch of places you are likely to find flashpoints is in the feedback data. Take a look at your last few employee surveys. What are the low scores telling you? What are people grumbling about? Are there patterns or trends that could predict activism? Do people feel fairly treated? Are there groups who are not feeling included? Do your employees say they trust your leadership team?

What about formal complaints? Remember, almost half of activists say they just want your attention. Are you properly responding to sexual harassment, bullying, pay equity, compliance and safety complaints? Can you prove it? Do your employees seethat you are responding quickly and convincingly, even when it’s someone super senior?

Let’s check the exit interviews. Why do people say they are leaving? I know, I know, many people don’t tell the truth on the way out, but some do and that may help you uncover additional dissonance or issues.

How about the external commentary? What’s the chatter about your firm on Glassdoor, Indeed and Google all about? Are there trends you can find that might suggest a flashpoint? Could customer experiences trigger any activism?

Finally, it never hurts to just come out an ask. A little pulse survey that probes for values dissonance or unacceptable behaviours may help you find a potential trouble spot that wouldn’t turn up elsewhere.

Look at broader trends

Activism doesn’t necessarily have to be sparked internally. The catalyst can be external, as in the #MeToo movement or the Wayfair walkout over a shipment to a migrant detention centre. Those are the ones that are hard to see coming, and more or less impossible to plan for. This is where you might want to engage an agency to monitor trending topics in the media, on social  or in your industry. Artificial intelligence is pretty good at finding trends in unstructured data, so you might look for someone who can help you out with that, particularly if you have a hunch about a possible flashpoint but need to validate it

Go the dark places

You might also find AI helpful in assessing how likely some of these flashpoints are to spark action. That’s a good thing to know as you begin to examine how various flashpoints will present. It could be a letter to management, as the Whole Workers used to announce their presence. It could be a spontaneous walkout, like the recent Wayfair action. Amazon employees are banding together to purchase large share blocks so they can take their issues to the annual general meeting. Other scenarios include:

  • Social media campaigns
  • Planned marches
  • Malicious data leaks
  • A call to the media
  • Complaints to a regulator

You need to have a response for each already drafted and know who will be on point to respond and who will be the back up. You will want to make sure you have data to counter any inaccurate claims, and you will want to put some very senior, very skilled people on your social media feeds while all of it is going down.

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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.