How to Lead in an Era of Employee Activism

This year, Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, told Reuters that if Georgia enacted their very strict abortion law, it would be “very difficult” to continue producing films in the State. “I rather doubt we will,” Iger said. “I think many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard. Right now we are watching it very carefully.” Iger is one of a growing number of CEOs taking on an activism role. In an HBR article, The New CEO Activists, Brian Moynihan of Bank of America is quoted as saying, “Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right.”

What is notable about Iger’s statement is who most influences the stance: his employees. Because coincident with, and perhaps behind, rising CEO Activism is rising employee activism. Weber Shandwick found that nearly 40% of employees are already considered activists (up 20 percentage points from prior survey) and among Millennials, that number is closer to 50% vs. 27% for Boomers.

With unemployment at record lows and skills gaps high, finding and keeping great people is getting harder. Employees also now have ready access to an audience through social media. The result is employees are empowered to make their feelings clear about how a company does business, where it does business and with whom it does business. Over 20,000 Google employees walked off the job in a protest about how the company handled sexual harassment incidents. Over 650 Salesforce employees signed a letter questioning doing business with the US Customs and Border Protection Agency. Amazon employees protested sales of their facial recognition software to law enforcement.

So how should purpose-driven leaders connect with, support and at times choose to disagree with employee activism?

Connect with their passions and fears

The most important step is really understanding your team members. What’s happening in the world, in their specific town, or at the company that makes them excited, frustrated, or scared?  To learn more, leverage employee resource groups, run pulse surveys or feedback exercises, engage on social platforms, and of course, ensure leaders are having a lot of in person conversations.

I thought long and hard the morning after the US presidential election about what, if anything, I was going to say to our team. I knew the vast majority were devastated by the outcome, but I didn’t want to create an uncomfortable environment for anyone who wasn’t. My approach was to give permission to talk, to listen, and to share how I was personally feeling when appropriate. I also reiterated my strong belief in the democratic process, that if you don’t like the outcome of something, fight for a different one, and that the outcome would likely make the work we do as a company, particularly in sustainability and inclusivity, even more critical.

Support those causes that align with your company’s purpose and values

When employees have a strong feeling about a topic, leaders then need to decide whether activism makes sense for the company. This is where having a strong purpose for the company and clear company values can be very critical. It also requires admitting at times that how you’ve handled something needs to change. A topic that hit WeSpire’s “we need to speak up as a company” threshold was joining other companies trying to convince the US government to remain in the Paris Accords. Not only is it a topic many of our employees are passionate about, but climate change poses serious business and personal risks for us and our customers.

Respectfully decline to support those that don’t

The hardest leadership decisions are when your employees want you to engage, but after looking at the topic deeply, you decline to take a stand as a company. You will want to let them know that you understand why they’re passionate on the topic. You can encourage them to continue to be passionate. Then be prepared to share the real, transparent reason you decided not to engage, even if the reason is a bit difficult to admit. Employees don’t have to like the decision, but will respect you significantly more if you are honest and clear with them about why you made it.

It’s heartening to see employees band together to try to create a better working world. It’s even more heartening to see leaders willing to take business, political and social risks to support them. That said, the most sage advice on this topic likely came from Colin Powell when he reminded Marc Benioff, “The farther you go up the tree, the more your backside is going to be exposed.”

Quote of the Week: “I don’t view Apple or myself as an activist. What we do is for some things where we have deep knowledge, or think we do, or a strong point of view, we’re not shy. We’ll stand up, speak out – even when our voice shakes.”

Tim Cook

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