Employee Activism: Moving Companies to Do More Good

July 16, 2019 LRN Corporation

There's been a big surge in employee activism the past year, as workers collectively act to influence how their companies are managed and run, usually in the context of societal goals and business ethics and purpose.

Notable instances of employee activism made news this spring. Employees of Wayfair, the online retailer, protested the sale of the company’s furniture products to a contractor supplying detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border by walking out of the company's Boston headquarters. Employees followed with a town-hall meeting after leadership chose not to respond to two petitions.

Some employees of Google asked San Francisco Pride to revoke the company's sponsorship of Pride 2019 events, citing issues with how Google handles LGBTQ harassment on YouTube and other company-owned properties.

Google employees around the world last year staged a well-publicized walkout to protest how the company handled sexual harassment claims, prompting Google to say it would end its forced arbitration policy. Facebook, eBay and Airbnb quickly followed.

It’s becoming clear, as employee activism grows, employees are demanding more from their organizations.

LRN’s own findings from the 2019 State of Moral Leadership in Business report confirm this: The report found 87% of employees said the need for moral leadership is greater than ever, and 72% said their company would be more successful in taking on its biggest challenges if management led with moral authority. Only 31% of frontline employees believe their companies support taking stands on moral issues.

Dov Seidman, LRN’s founder and chief executive, identifies four pillars that guide behavior, and help build and sustain moral authority. They are: lead with purpose; inspire and elevate others; be animated by values and virtues; build moral "muscle.”

When it comes to employee activism, there are a number of questions that company leaders and management should ask. Does the organization have a pulse of employees’ experiences and sentiments? Are there groups of our employees who question – or might question – business practices? Are there cohorts of employees whose values differ from others? If faced with employee activism, how will the organization respond? What kind of workplace culture does the organization have?

The recent events at Wayfair and Google are certainly teaching moments for corporate leaders, regardless of whether they see their employees’ views and positions as justified. Organizations need to earn the trust of employees for them to function at their best, and cultivating an ethical culture and workplace is an ideal place to start.

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