How to make employee activism work for your organisation

Workplace activism is here to stay and, if handled correctly, can energise and improve your workforce, according to Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, associate professor in Entrepreneurial Leadership and Diversity at HEC Paris in Qatar.

The co-author of Futureproof Your Career: How to lead and succeed in a changing world said that for many, workplace activism is a product of two overarching trends in the business world: the entrepreneurial, ‘hustle’ mindset, and the realisation that no organisation is apolitical.

Workplace activism is where employees try to make a difference at work, for example by speaking up for diversity within the organisation or organising colleagues for charitable work.

She said: “Activism is going to grow. That space has been created – that permission has been given.”

The psychological contract between employee and employer, she said, has changed. 

“For Gen X, it was very much around loyalty to your organisation. It paid your bills – you just don’t ask about that top-end picture, you just get on with stuff.”

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With the arrival of Generation Z, she added, the whole philosophy of work changed.

“It’s completely different – and it’s not blind loyalty. The organisation has to keep continuously proving itself and demonstrate to its employees why they should carry on working in that space.”

Before that, she added, Generation Y had already brought a significantly more agile, entrepreneurial mindset to the workforce. 

It is this entrepreneurial spirit, she said, which may be the reason workplace activism has exploded often outside of traditional channels like unions.

Organisations will have to be creative in how they accommodate this desire, said Janjuha-Jivraj.

She gave the example of a lawyer who wasn’t given the space to pursue activism in the workplace in a way that engaged her skillset.

Janjuha-Jivraj said: “When the company was doing voluntary work, it was cleaning up in the park, because that was ticking the [volunteering] box.

“But that isn’t what drives [her], there isn’t any skills development.”

The lawyer ended up co-organising a space camp for girls, to encourage girls into STEM careers.

“She learned to be entrepreneurial, which as a lawyer, she hadn’t had that exposure to. She was learning to mobilise a team of 15 volunteers to give up their weekend. 

“Her transferable skills went through the roof. Needless to say, she recently moved jobs, still within law, but in a much more entrepreneurial place.”

Giving employees space to pursue their activism goals can energise them, she added, and help organisations by providing another way for them to engage with their workplace.

Many leaders, however, misunderstand the trend, according to Janjuha-Jivraj. 

She said: “We’re seeing leaders not always making the best decisions, because of the way they think.”

Through differences of both seniority and generation, some leaders are overly optimistic about change, she said and the way to make them understand the importance of genuine internal activism is by making it personal.

“We’d have these senior leaders sitting in a room talking to them about how they’d raise their daughters and granddaughters.

“And then we’d hit them with the fact that to achieve gender parity [it takes] 107 years. And their smiles would just disappear.

“These individuals were assuming things will get better, that a millimetre [of change] would be enough.”