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What is your response to employee activism? Part two


Employee activism is on the rise and HR practitioners are being called to respond. While in the past leaders have claimed to be ‘apolitical’ this excuse has been exposed for what it is – as much of a political statement as direct action. This article presents a taxonomy of organisational responses, offered as a guide for conversations and an aide to making clear strategic decisions regarding the inclusion of ‘voices of difference.’

If you think your organisation is apolitical, think again. A failure to engage in social and environmental issues makes you part of the problem, say Megan Reitz and John Higgins

The below is the second part of March/April 2021's different slant feature on employee activism. For context and key findings, read part one here.


From research to reality

One thing we emphasise in our research is that employee activism is not something to airbrush out. If you are trying to suppress then the tide will break through, and if you are seeking quick fixes and stating well-intentioned but empty value statements then you’ll probably need to face facts.

Employee activism is here to stay and you will need (and hopefully want) to engage.

Here are a few questions to consider that illustrate how necessary it is to think deeply about this subject:

Question 1 Is employee activism part of your strategic plan? Has it been discussed at board level?

Question 2 In order to answer Question 1 you need to consider how you see your organisation’s role in society. This requires you to deeply engage in the question ‘what is our organisation for?’ Are you there for shareholders? Are you there for employees? For future generations? What happens when these stakeholders are in conflict?

Question 3 To answer Question 2 you must ask yourself ‘how do you see the world?’ Made up of discrete entities that manage themselves and control outcomes – or systemic, where organisational boundaries are a fantasy and complex, interdependent relationships exist with the wider world?

If your answer to Question 3 is the former, then you may feel you can avoid employee activism and the consequences of societal inequality and environmental degradation altogether. Or you may offer the seemingly strong, but in practice empty, advocacy of ‘zero-tolerance’ policies.

If you answer the latter – you see the world from a systemic perspective – then you, your team and your organisation are intimately bound up with activist issues and being ‘apolitical’ is a nonsense. You’re part of the world and there’s nothing you can do but join in.

There is no silver bullet in terms of forging a constructive response to activist issues; it comes from having a track record for taking the views of others seriously, not deploying the latest listening tool or dialogue framework. The first step starts with each of us being honest about how much we give a damn about the experiences of others outside of the corporate agenda.

More on employee activism

Pushing for progress: the workplace's role in political and social movements

HR’s role in employee activism

Workforce online activism on the rise

Social activism could turn the workplace into a ‘wokeplace’


Megan Reitz is professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult Ashridge Executive Education and John Higgins is an independent researcher, coach, consultant, and author. 


The full piece of the above appears in the March/April 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right