Purpose: Employee activism; threat or opportunity?

Polly Robinson, Senior Account Director in our Purpose team writes one week on from Extinction Rebellion’s Climate Strike and Amazon hitting the headlines following the news its employees walked out in protest at the organisation’s inaction – or insufficient action – on climate change. Read on for Polly’s take on what the rise of employee activism says about the employer/employee relationship today.  

Last Friday, around 1,800 Amazon employees left their desks in protest. Not against pay or working conditions, but against the company’s inaction on climate change.

Protesters had all signed a petition with three requests; stop donating to politicians and lobbying groups that deny the reality of climate change, stop working with oil and gas companies to optimise fossil fuel extraction, and achieve zero carbon emissions by 2030.

While the third request was partially met on the day of planned protests, with Jeff Bezos announcing a pledge to make Amazon a carbon-neutral company by 2040, the pressure group stuck to its word and went ahead with the walkout.

The size of the action, profile of the company and dedication of protesters all make this a news-worthy event, but what’s revealing is that it’s not the first of its kind.

The Amazon walkout marked the latest in a series of instances, where workers have stepped away from their desks in protest at the business practices of their employer.

In June, Wayfair employees walked out on discovery that Wayfair had been profiting from selling beds to the detention centres along the southern U.S. border. Last year, thousands of Google staff around the world staged a series of walkouts to demonstrate their disgust following claims of sexual harassment, gender inequality and systemic racism at the organisation.

These are just three instances of ‘employee activism’ but there are others, and there will be many more.

But why now? And what does the emergence of employee activism say about the employer/employee relationship at the cusp of 2020?

While there are numerous answers to the first question. One is inextricably linked to the second.

For decades the employer/employee relationship has been changing. The ‘job for life’ mentality has been eroded by increasing retirement ages, expanding horizons and the rise of the gig economy – and with it, perhaps, our unwavering loyalty to our employers.

At the same time, the growth of the internet and sites such as Glassdoor have given employees a platform to voice their grievances. When employers can be held to account so publicly, and with such a drastic effect on recruitment, retention and the bottom line, employers really have no choice but to sit up and listen.

Such shifts have contributed to a levelling of the playing field for employers and their people. Management consultancies will refer to the emergence of the new deal or new employment contract but, fundamentally, the employee/employer relationship is no longer transactional – it’s one of mutual benefit.

Money is still important, but people also want to work for a business whose purpose – its core reason for being – aligns with their own. And when there’s a disconnect between the purpose of an organisation and that of its people – that’s when the problems start. Employees now understand their power – and they’re not afraid to wield it to uphold the values they hold dear.

So what does this mean for businesses?

Reading the above, business leaders could be dispirited to be so ham-strung by their people but, if they do, they’ve missed the point.

Employees are voting with their feet. While this will take them away from organisations that don’t do their bit or who say one thing and do another, it will take them towards those who live by defined values.

According to a survey by PwC, 88% of millennials want to work for a company whose values reflect their own. Meanwhile, just one in five millennial respondents to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report said they would choose to stay at a solely profit-driven company for more than five years.

This demonstrates the need for organisations to not only to be purposeful, but crucially communicate their purpose externally to attract talent and as a key differentiator and internally to inspire and motivate existing employees. To succeed, employees must feel part of an organisation’s purpose and be able to define their role in achieving that purpose.

Businesses shouldn’t scramble to define their purpose in fear of employee activism, they should do this because it presents huge business opportunity – and, of course, it’s the right thing to do.

Written by Polly Robinson, Senior Account Director, Corporate and Business Communications
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