HR Management··5 min read

Explained: The Unstoppable Rise Of Employee Activism

Employee Activism

An ever-growing number of employees are becoming very vocal, not only about the way an employer runs its internal affairs, but also about whether or not it put its money where its mouth is when it comes to issues affecting society at large.

After the death of George Floyd, for example, workers at companies such as Microsoft, Adidas, Nike, and Amazon accused these firms of not doing enough about employment equity and waiting too long before doing it. They believed that hiring and promotion processes should long ago have been adapted to ensure racial equity.

Two years ago, well over a thousand Google workers signed a petition urging the company not to enter into agreements with federal immigration agencies. Their argument was that the agencies in question were making themselves guilty of gross human rights violations.

More recently Walmart employees organized a moment of silence as well as a 15-minute walkout after deadly shootings in three of the company’s stores within a week. Shortly after that the firm announced that it would no longer stock ammunition for handguns or short-barrel rifles and put up notices requesting customers not to bring guns into any of its retail outlets.

What is behind the rise of employee activism?

According to the CEO of the Illinois Technology Association in Chicago, Julia Kanouse, today’s workforce is increasingly concerning themselves with what their employers are doing to make the planet a better place for all of us.

Getting their message across is easier today than a few decades ago because organizational structures are not so hierarchical anymore. Apart from that, social media has made sure that workers across the country (and the world) can now easily form pressure groups and even get the attention of large media houses.

Until now most of the mass action has been limited to a couple of major companies, Kanouse believes, however, that employee activism will eventually find its way to even the smallest workplace. She is convinced that the era when businesses could pursue money without keeping their workforce happy and taking the issues that matter to them seriously is long gone.

Who is behind the rise of employee activism?

In an online survey conducted by international marketing and communications firm Weber Shandwick among 1,500 people a while ago, about 75% of respondents expressed the view that employees have the right to criticize the way their employers do things.

What is quite interesting is that even among Baby Boomers 65% of respondents said workers should have the right to speak up against their employer. This percentage increased to 76% for Generation X and 82% for Millennials.

Why should management and HR take employee activism seriously?

If a company’s workers start feeling disillusioned with the discrepancies between what its official policy documents say it stands for and the reality on the ground, it is important for management and HR to understand why this is the case and to figure out what to do about it. If this is not done, it can very quickly lead to a drop in morale, an increase in staff turnover, and decreased productivity.

In their Future of Work report law firm Herbert Smith Freehills expresses the view that some of the most important causes of employee activism are things that resort directly under HR: the way the company deals with casual workers, the way it deals with (or fails to deal with) diversity, benefits, and of course pay issues.

Apart from that, there is also the growing perception that many companies are not accepting responsibility for, or doing anything about, social issues such as modern slavery, pollution, plastics, and military spending. According to a poll conducted by Glassdoor, nearly 75% of all employees under the age of 34 nowadays believe that the company they work for should take a clear stand on major issues facing the country and the world.

To this has to be added the fact that a large percentage of the younger generation have a much more pliable definition of the term ‘work’ than their forefathers. They are prepared to quit a job very quickly if they feel the company doesn’t care about the things that are important to them.

In this new world businesses that fail to respond adequately to employee activism will increasingly find it more difficult to hire and keep the people they need to do make the organization function properly.

How should employers respond to employee activism?


With this, we do not mean the old-style kind of communication from the top down. We refer to 2-way communication that should preferably start with listening to what your workers are saying. Find out what makes them tick, what is important to them. If you don’t know that they are unhappy about a particular company policy or lack of policy you might find out about it on social media sooner rather than later.

Put your money where your mouth is.

It’s no use that somewhere in a policy document your company states that it cares about employment equity if the reality on the ground does not reflect that. The same applies to social issues. If you say you care about climate change, why not start a climate change fund and match employees’ contribution with a similar amount of company money?

Set up a protocol for responding to employee activism.

Don’t wait for your staff to down tools and stage a walkout over some or other issue before acting. Have a plan ready to deal with activism. This should include the members of the team that will communicate with the staff, who will be in charge, and what their modus operandi should be. This will ensure that your business can react much more quickly.

Be ready to clarify any misunderstandings.

If your staff members are, for example, aggrieved about the company’s lack of employment equity they could be 100% right or they might be missing some important points. Be prepared to explain the company’s side of the issue. Let’s say the board has already decided on a new employment equity policy but it still has to be implemented, the whole problem might go away once the workers know and understand this.

Be open-minded.

If you approach a meeting with aggrieved employee activists with your mind already made up that they are nothing but rabble-rousers, don’t expect things to get better. Listen to them with an open mind and be prepared to take the issues they raise to the highest decision-making level.


Employee activism is here to stay. Those companies that realize that their most important assets are not buildings and machinery, but people, are the ones that will survive the challenge and flourish. They will embrace the situation and turn it to their benefit.

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