How to

Managing the activist employee


Many employers have witnessed staff speak out against their policies, hitting news headlines in the process, so how should HR teams effectively manage these activists in the workplace?

Words by Jade Burke | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Jade Burke


Design by Matt Bonnar

Recent stats showcase how much employee activism is one the rise - so much so that a study by Weber Shandwick previously revealed that four in ten workers had spoken up to support or criticise their employers’ actions. Similarly, law firm Herbert Smith Freehills highlighted the growing concern for employers when it comes to activism, as its Future of Work report found that 80% of companies expect it to rise. Sometimes it is good and can push firms to look at their own shortcomings but it can quickly escalate to employees using external methods and platforms that can damage employer branding. So what can HR do to ensure employee activism is channelled effectively?

How can HR be proactive?

ACAS’ John Palmer indicates that HR teams are in a “unique position” when it comes to employee activism, and as such believes practitioners can take a proactive approach to support it rather than ban it altogether – something he believes would be “an excessive and unproductive approach”.

He explains: “HR is often in a unique position to positively affect many things that can take an employee’s belief’s and help channel them productively within the workplace.” He offers these three tips on how HR could be proactive:

  • Helping to establish a race network group.
  • Review, consult on and update harassment procedures.
  • Facilitate events that help employees learn about equality, diversity and inclusion – particularly around topical issues.
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Why is it increasing?

Yet, HR could have a task on its hand as activism appears to be growing. Social media could certainly be a contributing factor, as the platform offers employees the opportunity to express criticism of their firm. However, it could also be down to the new generation of workers – Millennials and Gen Z. These workers are known to identify strongly with purpose and how a business aligns itself to employees’ own beliefs. This is reflected in stats shared by Covestro, which found that roughly 70% of executives indicate that over the last five years they’ve seen an increase in the number of Millennials (71%), Gen Xers (69%) and Baby Boomers (46%) who want the opportunity for more social purpose work while on the job. The flipside being that employees could feel like speaking out if they feel the purpose of the job they were hired for matches up to day-to-day machinations inside the organisation.

Company code of conduct should be transparently clear on employee standards

In addition, similar data shared by Cone Communications in 2016 revealed that three quarters of Millennials consider an employer’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work, and around 64% won’t take a job if a potential employer doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices. In light of this, John Palmer, Senior Adviser at ACAS, tells HR Grapevine that it’s crucial for employers to “keep on using, reviewing and supporting” employees’ approaches and beliefs “until they make a positive difference (in a way that might not have happened in the past)”.

However, he warns that things can get tricky if an employee decides to act out on a belief they have, which could have an adverse impact on their job. “This is a tricky area of HR and employment law to address because most situations get very specific and it’s challenging to assign a single policy or approach to addressing them,” he explained. “For example, there’s a massive difference between deciding if dress codes could allow employees to wear poppies on remembrance Sunday, and deciding how to handle an employee who is being verbally offensive to customers and colleagues based on their view of Brexit.”

 

How HR can deal with activism

Employees may make a stand against their employer because they are disengaged or are simply responding to “a lack of open dialogue on change of behaviours or practices in organisations that could be interpreted as unfair, or incites inequality”, Andrea Smith, HR Director, Transformation UK&I at multinational beauty firm Coty shares. She adds that to manage this within a workforce, HR teams should consider rolling out employee opinion surveys, which would allow staff to feel they are making a difference and contributing to policy changes, while also helping to mould a culture that is inclusive of everyone. Smith explains: “A lack of accessible open dialogue in companies can quickly escalate to employees using external methods and platforms that can damage employer branding and reputation on corporate social responsibility.”

However, while many cases have risen that suggest employee activism focussed either on an expression of personal beliefs and carries the freedom to express individual views, Coty’s HR leader states that this type of behaviour should not be offensive or “incompatible with the dignity of others”.

As such, she warns that employers should ensure they have a clear code of conduct that applies to activism in the workplace. “Company Code of Conducts should be clear on rules, ethical principles and vision for your business,” she continues. “A Company code of conduct should also be transparently clear on employee standards and expectations that reflects the organisation's core values and overall company culture.”

It’s important for everyone involved to facilitate a safe and supportive environment

 

Should freedom of speech be encouraged?

Several stories have hit headlines where an employee has been removed from their position following an incident on social media. Early this year, for example, ITV News host Alastair Stewart resigned from his role after he was accused of writing an offensive tweet. At the time, ITN referred to it as “errors of judgement in Alastair's use of social media”.

Elsewhere, a Christian doctor was fired from his role after he stated he would not refer to ‘any 6ft tall bearded man’ as ‘madam’. He claimed that he was discriminated against due to his religious beliefs because he would not use pronouns relating to people’s chosen sex. Considering these incidents, should freedom of speech be encouraged in the workplace, or should it be avoided altogether?

Smith believes that encouraging it can evoke positive conversation around social injustices, such as the Black Lives Movement for example. She says: “Employee activism has the potential to build momentum from the global pandemic that is COVID and equality in various forms that has resulted in worldwide call for action on social injustices that have also been recognised in the workplace.”

Elsewhere, ACAS’ Palmer advises that while an open and inclusive workforce can often prove beneficial to employees and a business, it’s crucial that HR teams facilitate a safe environment for this to take place. “Whilst it’s important to ensure that being open and talking about beliefs takes place, it’s important for everyone involved to facilitate a safe and supportive environment in which to do this,” he warns. “For example, it’s often useful for colleagues to learn about and understand a colleagues’ religious beliefs and practices but it’s not going to be appropriate for an employee to try and ‘convert’ employees.”


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