Social activists. We all know one: the friend or relative whose apparent job it is to take a deep dive into social issues, develop a viewpoint and then work to share that viewpoint via passionate social media campaigns, calls for boycotts and marches on the state capitol – or on Washington.

These days, social activism is showing up in a new venue: the workplace. Employees are identifying social issues that impact them and working to make their voices heard. Their targets? Their own employers.

While employee protests and walkouts have been around for decades, they have focused primarily on labor issues such as wages, benefits, safety and working conditions. Recently, though, employees at some of the world’s largest companies are taking to social media – and the streets – to voice their displeasure about the impact business operations and decisions have on them, and on societal issues.

Employees are identifying social issues that impact them and working to make their voices heard. Their targets? Their own employers.Click To Tweet

Google is perhaps the most public example. On November 1, approximately 20,000 employees walked out in protest over the handling of sexual harassment claims and alleged inequality for women within the company. Later that month, workers protested the company’s plans to build a search engine that supported the online censorship regime in China. And Google isn’t alone. Amazon employees recently petitioned the online sale of facial recognition software over concerns that it could lead to “dangerous mass surveillance.” Microsoft employees demanded the company cancel its contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in protest over the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy on immigration. And the list goes on.

Employees likely feel empowered to make their voices heard by social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. And that’s not a bad thing for companies, since speaking up can lead to addressing issues that otherwise may have simmered beneath the surface. But employee social activism also can greatly disrupt the business and tarnish its reputation – often unnecessarily.

How can companies mitigate the risks that come with employee social activism without squelching the employee energy and enthusiasm that build a stronger company? Consider these tips:

  • Communicate openly about the company’s position on social issues. Share the “why,” including the potential business and employee impact, which sometimes is hard to see for those who are caught up in the emotion of an issue.
  • Have a well thought-out process for determining the company’s stand on business decisions that intersect social issues. Employees are more likely to accept decisions – even if they don’t agree with them – when they feel decisions and actions were thoroughly and thoughtfully considered.
  • Seek employee feedback on social issues via representative groups. Employee councils can help identify areas of social passion among their colleagues and work with leadership to harness positive energy and address issues before they take on a life of their own.
  • Let employees know you’ve heard them and that you are carefully weighing options in response to their enthusiasm or concern. At the same time, be careful not to convey unrealistic expectations about the power of employees’ opinions. While employee voices are important, businesses are not democracies.

Social activism isn’t going away any time soon, and businesses will have a lot to consider as employees more frequently exercise their voices inside and outside of the workplace. Check out this Washington Post story for a more in-depth look at the issue, and expect to hear more from us on this topic in future posts.

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