From the editor-in-chief: "The workplace is becoming the 'wokeplace'." Growing employee activism can create challenges

In my blog last week on ‘the China question’ I touched on the growing sense that employees will take a stand on their own employer’s activities, even its view on big political issues.

Much has been written over the past decade about the Activist Consumer and Activist Investors, but I feel we’re now entering the era of the Activist Employee.

But is there a danger of the workplace becoming the ‘wokeplace’?

Edelman’s Trust Barometer in 2019 found that 67 per cent of employees strongly agreed that ‘my employer has a greater purpose, and my job has a meaningful societal impact’. With 25 per cent of employees this was described as ‘a deal-breaker’.

And by 2020’s Trust Barometer ‘my employer’ emerged as the most trusted institution by a margin of 18 points over ‘business in general’ and even NGOs. Trust in ‘my employer’ was 27 points ahead of trust in government and media.

Last September, Edelman chief executive Richard Edelman argued: “Employees want us to speak on their behalf. [They] want CEOs to stand up and speak up on behalf of issues of the day. It’s an urgent time for CEOs to mobilise, in [a] sense, their entire supply chain of those who contribute to their businesses and get them to write letters as well.”

Google’s workforce has gained a particularly activist reputation in recent years. For example, late last year more than a thousand employees signed a public letter calling on their employer to commit to an aggressive company-wide plan on climate change.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained great momentum this summer, demonstrated that employers needed to listen to their staff and customers in taking a strong stance on racism. Some global brands – Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia – pledged actively to change the world. Others, such as Nike and Adidas, have invested millions in anti-racism groups and community projects, believing their customers and staff demand it.

But most employers in the Western world have felt, at the very least, the need to make strong statements backing Black Lives Matter. Many have given their employees days off to protest or commemorate.

This ranges from large corporations to comparatively small agencies. It spans geographies from New York City to small English towns.

Fuelling and complicating this further, the political and social environment of the West has become more polarised and heated, in the US even more so in than the UK.

The chief executive of a global PR network, headquartered in the US, told me this week: “It’s a huge cultural shift. Clients and agencies will have to make this a priority for their employer brand this year and next. It will be interesting to see if this dissipates if Trump loses the election. We have been here before, with the environment, when consumers turned to companies to do more.

“It used to be that we were only responsible for our employees once they walked into the office. But now there is a sense that people should bring their whole selves to work. They expect their employer to take a view on big societal issues, to actively facilitate change.”

The London-based boss of a leading public affairs and corporate consultancy expressed a similar view: “I think there’s a genuine coming together on this. We paused for a day of reflection on BLM and it was met with a fantastic response from teams. There’s also a real lean-in towards clients with a social agenda now. It’s exciting and it’s accelerating change.”

And the director of a smaller UK corporate consultancy, says: “It’s a very topical theme and important for lots of our clients. As I see it, employees are expressing a need for a greater connection to where they work. And this is often something of a cue for a stronger purpose.”

Jenny Scott, a former BBC economics correspondent and comms director for the Bank of England, now an advisor at Apella Partners, tells me: “In my experience the companies that deal with this best are those that are already on the journey to find their purpose and values. More traditional firms, which tend to see all this as a bit of noise, struggle more. This is because this is really walking the walk of multi-stakeholder communications. Employees don’t want their CEO to say the right thing and move on, they want to see injustice actively tackled.”

The American lens on this feels even more intense. In September Richard Edelman also said: “[This is] a new kind of moment in the corporate world. So CEOs are [speaking on societal issues] with the backing of their employees and the backing of their customers.”

There are however, some major inherent problems in the concept of Employee Activism. Most significantly it tends to rely on all employees holding similar political or societal views.

One CMO told me: “We tend to think in our sector that everyone is a liberal, but if you look closely at your employees, you can see some very conservative views in there too. Therefore we have to think hard about which issues we back.”

Some bosses even complain to me that the workplace is in danger of becoming “the wokeplace”. One agency boss says: “There still needs to be debate on societal and political issues. There is a tendency for some voices to believe that there’s only right and wrong. This is an extension of the ‘cancelling’ culture.”

The boss of one of the UK’s largest agencies says: “It’s a very new dynamic. A little dangerous maybe, open to abuse. Issues can be highly subjective. Self-interest can creep in.”

Jenny Scott believes embracing the diversity of views within a workforce is a “very valid question”. She says: “This is why the purpose of any organisation, and its remit, has to be clear. There will be certain social issues that a company feels it can talk about, others that may be deemed too political. But sometimes it’s difficult to know where the line is drawn.”

As for how agencies deal with this activism, the chief executive of a large London-based consultancy says: “Agencies have always operated employee conscience opt-outs for certain sectors including military clients, meat-based businesses and tobacco products – and this will continue to provide flex for businesses and employees. Also, the agency employment market spans hardcore corporate work to third sector/not-for-profit, so entrants will choose to work for employers who more naturally reflect their outlook.”

Meanwhile the CEO of the US-based network adds: ““We are working on a strategy on all this, but we’re not ready to talk publicly yet. There are many legal aspects around freedom of speech that complicate any approach/policy.”

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