More and more employees want their companies to take a stand on social and political issues, though exactly how and when companies should speak up isn’t clear. How much advocacy can staff expect from the places where they work? And is speaking up enough? Or should businesses be doing more?
In the summer of 2020 as Black Lives Matter protests began to erupt around the world *Liam Williams asked his employer to issue a public statement to support the cause. “It certainly required a bit of courage,” he said. “I had no idea what response to expect, but I felt no one else was asking.” Williams’ partner is black and so he had a particular interest in the issue. “I have always been interested in activism, but it made me more willing to put myself into a conflict,” he said. Williams went directly to the chief executive with his request, but was told later that it had been rejected by the board. There was no explanation or reason given. At a loss as to what he should do, he turned to Twitter and asked: “What are the next steps?”
Williams is not alone in using his voice to call for action by his employer. In the next three years, 80% of companies expect to see a rise in workforce activism, according to a report by Herbert Smith Freehill, an international law firm. A further 95% expect more workers to use social media to amplify their voices.
Alison Taylor, executive director at Ethical Systems, which provides training in this area, sees the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 as a turning point in businesses being willing to speak out on social issues. “Companies in general wouldn’t go anywhere near the issue,” she said in reference to previous race protests in the US. “It was felt to be too toxic, too controversial, too risky. Compare that to Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and companies could not move fast enough to make statements and say that they were doing something.”
The results were mixed as many businesses took to social media to show their support for the cause. “A lot of people then pointed out that putting a black square on Instagram is not sufficient,” Taylor said. “Where companies get caught out is that they feel that they need to take a stand. And then the focus––quite rightly––from employees and customers and the general public is on hypocrisy.” This means that just speaking out often isn’t enough. Employees want meaningful action too.
One company shows its true colours
This year Katy Walton, a communications manager at BJS Haulage, asked her company to publicly support gay pride––a gesture that she felt would be more than just symbolic. “The delivery industry is not very diverse. It’s a cause that I felt we could contribute to in terms of challenging perceptions and raising awareness,” she said. Her manager agreed to redesign some of their fleet in rainbow colours “literally spreading the message of diversity and inclusion on our big trucks,” she said.
Walton was not surprised her boss agreed to the idea. BJS Haulage is named after Baba Jaswant Singh Ji, a religious leader. So spiritual and ethical values are woven into the business model. Earlier in the year, the company named a fleet of trucks after inspirational local key workers. It has also supported charitable causes by, for example, helping out those who are homeless. For Walton, working for a company with heart is essential. “It gives me hope,” she said. “The world is in such turmoil at the moment. It’s empowering to align yourself with people who are looking to make positive changes in a world that feels very negative.”
This is a common feeling. Taylor says many calls for activism from employees come from a sense that work is one place they can make a difference. “There’s a lot of frustration with corrupt inefficient governments with nowhere to go, and the business communities are really good targets,” she said. “You can wait four years to vote, or you can go to your employer and pressure them––and get much quicker results.”
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Activists find their voices
Employee voices calling for change are increasingly difficult to silence. Megan Reitz, a professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult Ashridge business school, says multiple factors have led to “power shifts inside organisations that mean the voice has changed”. New technologies such as social media have given workplace activists a public and collective voice. In addition, younger generations are becoming more influential in the workforce and are more likely to actively champion ethical causes. In the past two years, 44% of millennials and 49% of Gen Zs have made choices over the type of work they are willing to do based on their personal ethics, according to Deloitte’s Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z survey.
As work structures change, employees also hold more influence in their own right. “If you’re a tech worker with very valuable skills and you say you’ll leave if the organisation doesn’t take action on an issue, then the team needs to pay attention,” Reitz said. “The more that organisations start to really care about holding on to talent, the more power employees with very valuable skills have and the more their voices need to be acted upon.”
Tension arises when this leads to a power struggle. “It’s very uncomfortable for many leaders and managers,” said Reitz. “For decades, we’ve told leaders and managers their job is to be experts. But this territory is about dialogue and requires leaders to step forward in conversation without having a predetermined answer.” Not only have leaders been trained against doing this, Reitz says, but high-profile leaders can be reluctant to take a stand as they are more likely to be targeted if something goes wrong. “There are examples of people that are losing their jobs and failing miserably because they’ve said the wrong thing,” said Reitz.
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Working together for change
When the leadership and the staff at a business work in partnership on issues, the results can be significant. In March 2020, Natasha Knowles had a miscarriage six weeks into her pregnancy. She was given a week off to recover, but this didn’t feel like enough. “I’d be in meetings and start feeling very emotional,” she said. “I didn’t feel like myself.” At the time, New Zealand had just announced that it would give couples paid leave after miscarriages. So Knowles, who is a project manager at Hallam, a digital marketing agency, started to look into workers’ rights in the UK. “I found out that we had essentially nothing,” she said.
She approached her managers about putting together a company policy and they gave her complete freedom to write it. Since then, all of Knowles’s recommendations have been taken on as guidelines at the agency. Now she and the company are pushing to spread the message and to improve UK laws for working parents who experience miscarriage. Knowles says support from her company has been crucial to her advocacy. “It just adds more gravity to the cause that you’re trying to push forward and advocate for,” she said. “One solo person without a company isn’t going to make a huge difference, but a company saying, ‘We made this change’ gives other companies that confidence to do it as well. Hallam is just as much a part of this as I am.”
Speak or be spoken for
For others, the path forward is less obvious. Williams spent a long time trying to decide whether or not to pursue the issue after his company decided not to support Black Lives Matter publicly. He decided not to do so. “I was unsure whether succeeding was even really a meaningful way to concentrate my energy,” he said. “Solidarity is a difficult concept.” He says he is uncertain of the impact of private entities showing support for the cause when “it will only ever be for their own gain”.
Taylor too would rather see businesses support democracy than become activists themselves. “This means getting business money out of politics, opposing candidates that are trying to restrict voting rights, and giving time off to vote,” she said.
One thing is clear: opting out of activism is no longer the obvious choice for businesses. Society itself is becoming more vocal about politics. The number of mass protests increased by an average of 11.5% every year between 2009 and 2019. In this context, “there’s no such thing as being neutral or apolitical,” Reitz said. “Organisations are being forced to accept that they’re part of the system that we create and they bear a responsibility for that. You can’t take your organisation out of society.”
- *This name has been changed to protect the subject’s anonymity
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