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Workforce online activism on the rise

Organisations see the rise of online activism as a threat to reputation and profits, but few have any guidelines in place around employee use of social media

Almost all employers expect to see a rise in online activism among employees over the next few years, according to research from law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.

Its Future of Work report found that 80% of companies predict a rise in workforce activism, with 95% expecting an increase in workers' use of social media to amplify their voice.

It also revealed that over three-quarters (77%) of companies expect to see more legal challenges launched by employees against their employers and paid for via crowdfunding websites, and a similar proportion (79%) expect to see an increase in whistleblowing.

When asked what they thought was likely to trigger online activism, employers cited CSR and environmental issues (46%) and a lack of diversity (45%). Among large companies (those that make over £1 billion in revenue), pay and benefits (57%) and the status of casual workers (54%) were seen as key triggers.

The survey found that employers regard workplace activism as one of the biggest threats to business (cited by 55%), only beaten by cyber threats (65%) and a new global economic slowdown (62%).

Board members and senior executives also predicted that employee activism could cost their companies up to 25% of global revenue.

However, despite these concerns, less than half (46%) of companies said they have placed restrictions on what employees and casual workers can say or do, including what they say about the company on social media, attending marches, signing petitions, or taking strike action. A further 47% don't have any policy in place on whistleblowers.

Speaking to HR magazine, Fabian Wallace-Stephens, a senior researcher at the RSA's Future of Work Centre, said that employees are making use of new technologies to highlight poor working practices and organise in their workplaces.

“Social media provides workers with a powerful tool to highlight poor working practices. But we have also seen a range of what can be described as ‘WorkerTech’ innovations that are helping to turbocharge their efforts here. These new forms of workplace organising may eventually punish employers who try and control what their workers are saying on social media," he said.

Wallace-Stephens pointed to online platform Organise which allows workers to anonymously create surveys, campaigns and petition about the issues that affect them at work, and collects data about how widely the problems are experienced by colleagues across the country.

Similarly, Worker Info Exchange has developed an analytics platform that allows Uber drivers to gain access to the data the company holds on them.

Its aim is to show drivers whether they earn the minimum wage given the hours they have been logged in and how algorithms make decisions about allocating trips.

Wallace-Stephens added that the emergence of this tech will continue as the use of employee platform monitoring increases.

"To the extent that AI-enabled workplace monitoring and algorithmic management become more widespread, and we start to properly understand the implications of the GDPR for our working lives, we expect to see more of these kinds of solutions emerge to help resolve disputes at work,” he said.

Alison Brown, global head of practice at Herbert Smith Freehills said that trust between employees is being tested like never before.

She said: "Technological change and the advent of artificial intelligence in the workplace is threatening jobs. At work, people are often being asked to do more with less – and are seeing their productivity monitored by employers in increasingly imaginative ways."

Brown added that organisations able to manage tensions effectively and spot the warning signs will be more likely to navigate the issue successfully.

“Protecting and nurturing the trust and engagement between employers and the workforce in this environment is paramount," she said.

"The organisations that will thrive will be those that find a way to redefine the workforce relationship, manage tensions and create a common, compelling vision.”

Employers must make sure they have a detailed social media policy in place, advised Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula.

“The way employers respond to staff who choose to raise issues online will depend on several factors, including the existence of a social media policy," she said.

"Having this policy in place will help lay down ground rules on how employees ought to conduct themselves online, including the need to refrain from harmful or derogatory comments about the organisation."

However, Palmer warned that employers should be careful when dealing with whistleblowers.

"Employers ought to tread carefully here and consider if any complaints do qualify as a protected disclosure, as whistleblowers are protected from detrimental treatment and may claim unfair dismissal if employers dismiss them for this reason. It does not necessarily even matter if the employee's complaint is correct, so long as they didn't make it in bad faith,” she said.

“Employers must be alert to examples of online activism that are likely to qualify as protected disclosures. In these circumstances, employers must focus on resolving any particular issues without hesitation, while also encouraging staff to confide any concerns with the organisation directly in the future.”

Herbert Smith Freehills surveyed 375 board members and senior management in organisations employing more than 1,000 staff and with over £250 million in annual sales.