Employee Activism is the Next Wave

Jim Moriarty
4 min readMar 27, 2021

Best ways to prepare now

Photo by Oskar Yildiz on Unsplash

The surfer in me knows to always watch the horizon. When someone yells, “SET!” you don’t want to be caught inside. A similar thing can be said about the rise of employee activism; it’s closing in. It’s time to prepare for another, more challenging wave about to hit.

Clearly, most brands have been caught off-balance in recent years. The rise of social movements has left them stunned and swirling. Few have led or distinguished themselves as brand citizens. Understanding this recent history helps us to see what’s right in front of us and prepare for its impact. When we look in the rearview mirror, recent movements seem logical, even inevitable.

Of course, consumer boycotts became a thing in the last five years. We might have expected that consumers can, and absolutely will, exercise their influence on the companies that make the products they buy.

Social movements like “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” have risen to prominence because ideas like equity, equality, and access are foundational. Women absolutely deserve safe work environments and Black people absolutely deserve justice, equality, healing, and freedom. The rise of these recent waves seems obvious as we look at them now, yet they surprised many.

I believe, in five years when we look back, employee advocacy and activism will seem inevitable. If we see this coming through the windshield, we can prepare for its impact on our brands. A single statistic caught my eye last year…

Nearly 1/3 of workers’ top New Year’s resolutions was to get a new job. A new job was more desired than a promotion, more pay and better work-life balance combined. Their primary reason for searching was lack of a fit between corporate culture and their values. Source: Korn Ferry

Surfers would call this a “forerunner wave,” or the first signs of a new swell. In fact, these early waves are already hitting brands of all sizes — 20,000 Google workers walked off the job to protest sexual misconduct and employees of Hachette Book Group stopped the printing of Woody Allen’s memoir.

So how can a brand prepare for the Employee Activist wave?

1. Understand the fuel of modern movements; you’re holding it

Modern movements are fueled by unprecedented levels of access and engagement. Mobile phones outnumber people on the planet. It should surprise no one that everyone on the planet has something to say. This has flipped activist culture. Ten years ago activism was fringe behavior. Now it is an expected part of the mainstream. This is a paradigm shift in the relationship between employee and employer.

2. Know your brand’s Northstar; it gives employees a safe harbor

A Northstar idea must be genuine and able to withstand constant pressure. The actions and investments you make to prove your commitment to a Northstar offer employees protection in a storm and fend off activism before it takes root. In other words, design, prioritize, and invest to win the war before it starts.

3. Articulate a “no-BS” reason for existing

Don’t rely solely on marketing communications to explain why your brand exists. Brands lead by actions and must articulate a purpose that will withstand heavy scrutiny and be embraced beyond the marketing department.

A “no-BS” purpose is embedded in the products and services, reflected in the internal culture, and stays true when trends change.

4. Think of your employees as the base and the swing vote; earn their trust and respect

Consumers are no longer the most important target audience. Employees have seized that primary spot. When a brand legitimately treats internal advocates like external influencers, they create a formidable first line of offense. This force has far more influence than a 30-second commercial.

5. Embrace the shift in generational attitudes, expectations, and engagement

We’ve all seen enough Millenial and Gen Z stats to numb our eyes. Yet, a statistic that rises above most is that “61% of Americans between 18 and 24 have a positive reaction to the word ‘socialism,’ beating out ‘capitalism’ at 58%” Source: Axios

Emerging generations are challenging American truisms. Think of it as meritocracy with an asterisk. A successful brand in 2021 must be financially successful and deliver meaningful value to society. Full stop.

6. Prepare for impact; this wave will hit you

Now is the time to think like a surfer. Information and innovation have transformed the experience of riding waves. One could say the same thing about brands. This is an era defined by the possibility of engaging people everywhere. Employees will be the cornerstone of this new age.

Accept this as fact and plan accordingly. No industry or brand will be spared. Prepare by fostering a culture that galvanizes the entire company to act, not just leadership. The best defense to an oncoming wave is an active, holistic position. Company-wide, culturally-embedded preparation beats a crisis-management tiger team every day of the week.

--

--