HR’s role in employee activism

“You can raise visibility… [but] you’re still going to get fired”. This was the conclusion of an employee activist we interviewed. Could this person be at your organisation?

What happens when employees speak up about wider social and environmental issues? What is your response personally and what is HR’s role?

For the last year, as part of our research on ‘speaking truth to power’, we have been exploring employee activism and its do’s and don’ts. We’ve dug under the surface of what activism means, who does it, how they do it and how organisations are responding.

It’s a hot topic and becoming hotter, as millennials influence the workplace and the assumption that the organisation is only there for shareholders gets increasingly challenged. Meanwhile social media is passing its judgement, making public every organisations’ response – or lack of it – to issues which have in recent times been seen as nothing to do with the corporate agenda.

Increasingly HR professionals are being called to steer leadership teams through this. According to our research there are some traps to avoid and some questions that are useful to pay proper attention to.


Do you know what your employees experience and what really matters to them?

Really? How? (Hint: don’t say ‘the employee survey’). Our research shows how likely it is that leaders get trapped in an optimism bubble and this may be the case for HR too – you underestimate the challenges faced by employees whilst overestimating the degree to which they speak up as well as how approachable you are.

The bubble exists in part because we all tend to overrate our listening skills and we suffer advantage blindness – we possess labels (for example, job title, gender, ethnicity) that convey privilege but are often the last people to realise the impact they have on others. It isn’t until you don’t have those labels that you see how influential they can be on who speaks up and who gets heard.

There are processes that can be designed in which can be helpful to ensure you keep your antennae working – employee networks and shadow boards for example. However, they are only as helpful as your genuine commitment to learn, hear and act on what they tell you.


Does employee activism feature in your strategic plan?

Has it been discussed at board level – or have you only discussed your response to a specific pressing concern, such as Black Lives Matter or #MeToo? How deeply have you and the leadership team reflected?

Your response to employee voice is not simply about setting up a network and having a communications plan. It needs to consider your very role in society – whether you see your organisation as a discreet entity that can remain neutral, choosing only to act when you want to. Or whether you can see that you are intimately interrelated with societal and environmental concerns and to claim neutrality is to state you are satisfied with and will continue to perpetuate the status quo.


Are you and your leaders skilled in facilitating dialogue?

Given that our leadership development efforts over the last few decades have preferred visionary, charismatic leadership and the management of change, it is possible that you’re less well-versed in accepting what you don’t know. Having the deep curiosity to learn and seeing your role as far wider than the ultimate achievement of the targets associated with shareholder value.

Do you and your leadership team see yourselves as activists?

This article thus far has an underlying assumption that you are separate from employee activists, whereas of course we all stand for something.

How do you see your role and responsibility in the workplace? How do you recruit your senior leaders? Do you seek activists, avoid them or have never really thought about it?

The answer to that last question might tell you a great deal about how activists further down the organisational hierarchy perceive what really matters to their leaders.

HR is not alone in needing to engage with employee activism, or as we call it in our research report, voices of difference that challenge the status quo. However, they may well need to lead the way. If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to proactively reach out, hear, learn and choose your response wisely.


Megan Reitz is an author and professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult Ashridge Executive Education.