India Inc needs to brace for rising employee activism

By James Agrawal

Employee activism is a relatively new phenomenon, observed in big ticket IT companies like Google and Amazon over the last few years. In an age termed to be one of activism, does employee activism need to be looked at seriously? This is not an easy question to answer because of the unpredictability of the nature of activism. But you can’t ignore and push it to become a reactive crisis management topic. HR managers need to start somewhere and evolve a policy along the way that aligns corporate goals with those of the employee.
Employee activism can be looked at as an extension of the unions that fought for their rights — like fair pay and reasonable work hours. It widens the ambit to include employees raising their voice to be heard on issues like environmental pollution, inclusive workplaces and, in some instances, even company business decisions. With the decreasing influence of unions across the world, employees are now organising based on common interests to engage in protests.

What has also changed now from unions to activists is the visibility of the protests. With internet proliferation and social media activism, a large-scale protest only takes a few minutes to be all over the news, worldwide. This can turn into a PR nightmare with the company’s brand value at stake. Corporate email and memo leaks have also embarrassed many companies, especially when confidential data is leaked.

In November 2018, 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout to protest against the management protecting highly placed executives accused of sexual harassment. In April 2019, employees at Google again voiced their opinion against Google working with the government on US military projects. Amazon also got a taste of this activism in September last year, when hundreds of employees walked out of Amazon offices to support a global ‘climate strike’. The employees were part of a group named ‘Amazon employees for climate justice’ who were and are trying to influence Amazon to decrease its carbon footprint worldwide.

These companies took note and tried to address the concerns of the employees. Google decided not to go ahead with the US military project. Amazon initiated a ‘climate pledge’, promising to decrease carbon emissions in its operations globally. There are many more such examples from technology companies in the US — Microsoft, Facebook and WeWork — which have dealt with employee activism. So, is this kind of activism only seen in large tech firms with a highly educated workforce and only in the US?

HR experts say that though the scale of activism is nowhere near what has been witnessed in the US, employee activism is all set to soar in all companies — tech or non-tech, big or small. Companies in India will also have to gear up to address activism with a well-thought out strategy. Almost 50% of India’s workforce today comes from the ‘millennial’ generation, born between 1980 and 2000. The research on ‘millennials’ indicates that they want their jobs to mean more than just jobs. Most of them would like to work for companies that align with the values they uphold in their daily life.

With social media, opinions are everywhere and knowledge just a few clicks away. Trends from across the world are easy to follow even in remote locations and opinions can be mobilised quickly through 140-character tweets. We are already seeing a change with CEO activism, where leaders are stepping out of their comfort zone to take a stand on current issues — political or otherwise. This is a huge shift from a traditional corporate environment that did not believe in protesting of any sort.

HR should be ready with a strategy on activism to understand how it can be encouraged to further company goals. This will add value to companies that are looking to engage with customers by being more socially responsible. Many of them like to be seen as having values that allow them to grow profitably without compromising on ethics. Drawing out an employee activism framework will help companies in enhancing their overall reputation. Here are some guidelines that can help HR in starting out:

* Listen to employees: Establish processes where employees can reach out to communicate issues that concern them. Employees should be able to talk without fear of any backlash. Sometimes issues can be solved by the senior management being clued into what the popular opinion is. Having an open channel for communicating helps in solving issues faster too.

* Framing values with actionable items: Organisational values need to be spelled out clearly with a plan of action. Just talking about values without actually walking the talk will not help. Say, an organisation believes that ethics are important for it to operate, then it should be also ready to be questioned by employees on that front.

* Establishing a response protocol with dos and don’ts: With social media usually at the forefront of employee activism, lack of a proper response strategy will leave you staring at a problem much bigger than it actually is. HR should be proactive in communicating upfront on how the company will deal with issues that concern employees, so that issues can be addressed internally first. It is also important to list things that you consider non-negotiable. For example, companies can state that employees who leak confidential documents online will incur penal action.
* Building flexibility into the policy: While drafting this policy, HR should be flexible enough to change it as and when required. The unpredictable nature of activism will give rise to many a scenario that companies don’t foresee. Keep communications transparent and open, so feedback can be incorporated to improve on the go.

Initiating this exercise and having an open approach will help in developing an organisation-wide culture towards activism. Over time, this can help build goodwill and foster an environment of collaboration among employees. An approachable leadership will make employees feel engaged to contribute to the company.

This is an opportunity to build a company that actually reaches out to employees who want to be part of a good work environment. Even if an actual instance of activism could be further away, starting conversations around the topic will give companies an edge in this age of activism.

(The writer is MD, BTI Executive Search)

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