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Employee Activism & Internal Crises

Google sacked 28 employees last week following internal protests over Israeli contracts in another example of a growing trend of activist workplace issues that employers are having to navigate. However, it is not just the private sector that has found itself affected by issues like those seen at Google, as many third sector organisations have struggled to navigate the difficult questions posed by employee reactions to international conflicts, political campaigns and cultural movements.

This blog considers what steps leaders can take to help avoid becoming mired in controversy, media scrutiny and employee turmoil when dealing with political and social issues in the workplace.

‘Slippery solidarity’

Organisations have increasingly been called by employees and other stakeholders to stand with and align themselves in solidarity with social causes and political movements. This pressure can be difficult to manage and often it may seem clear, just and obvious to put out a solidarity statement and align with a seemingly uncontroversial cause. It is important to remember that solidarity is a slippery slope and soon requests may follow for stances on other causes and movements.

When is it right to issue a solidarity statement? What do your employees feel about this issue and do you have authority to comment on it? Which international conflicts do you condemn, and which do you avoid commenting on? Is your organisation an activist organisation and are your values and mission directly affected or associated with the issue in question? Is the issue related to your organisation and of specific concern to stakeholders? Answering questions like this and building out frameworks for issuing statements will help guide when navigating your organisation’s stance on complex social causes and political movements.

Expectations gap

An expectations gap between employees and employers over what the company’s role is in championing causes and enacting political or social change is an issue which is leading to employee dissatisfaction, toxic workplace environments and accusations of leaders and organisations failing to represent employee views. It is important that employees are aware of clear policies on what is expected of the organisation in respect to political expression. Being able to point to straightforward and understandable policies, which acknowledge the divergence of opinions on matters and the organisation’s requirement to act within its purpose will help avoid inflamed tensions and snowballing internal activism in response to geopolitical events. This is a matter of education and through making employees aware of organisational policies both early in their onboarding and routinely in trainings will ensure that an expectations gap does not develop, and feelings of employee dissatisfaction do not fester.

Don’t let the tail wag the dog

In responding to these issues there is a need for clarity on where decision-making lies, and senior leaders should not be afraid of communicating this in an appropriate manner. For an organisation to run smoothly and achieve its purpose, decisions and policies must ultimately come from the top and be enforced for the benefit of all at the organisation. Avoiding letting the loudest few speak for the many will help ensure the right balance is maintained and the public position more accurately reflects the reality of the situation. 

Please contact us on [email protected] if you would like advice on any of the issues discussed in this piece. 

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