Since 2018, the tech industry has seen a number of high profile instances of employee activism:

  • Google employees asked San Francisco Pride to revoke Google’s sponsorship of Pride 2019 events, citing alleged issues with how Google handles LGBTQ harassment;
  • around 20,000 Google employees staged a global walkout about the company’s alleged handling of a sexual harassment claim;
  • more than 7,700 Amazon employees signed a petition for a more ambitious climate change approach, attracting a great deal of publicity.

Why is employee activism on the rise in today’s climate? Why is the tech industry such fertile ground for this activism? And what should employers be doing to engage productively with these activists?

What is activism?

Employee activism involves employees taking any form of direct action in protest against their employer. It has, to date, taken two forms: individual activism on social media and group activism through social media and the employer’s own internal collaboration tools. Increasingly, the issues raised by employees go beyond the traditional topics of pay and conditions to broader social goals and business ethics.

The topics that spur activists to action range from climate change to censorship to the handling of internal investigations. When successful, employee activism can not only drive change in individual employers but can set trends that shape an industry.

Why is it happening?

There are a few reasons for the rise in employee activism. Generational values have shifted in the past few years: recent surveys conducted by Weber Shandwik and Povaddo indicate that Millennials care more about the big picture than their own personal interest. They are more likely to voice their views, with 48% speaking up, compared with 33% of Generation X and 27% of Baby Boomers. More than 40% of US-based employees at Fortune 1000 companies say that a company’s actions on important social issues impact their decision to work for it.

But inspiration also comes from the top down: CEOs are increasingly active on social media, voicing their political and social views more freely. This, combined with flatter hierarchies, empowers employees to voice their own opinions in a direct way.

The tech industry has inadvertently incubated employee activism. The demand for skilled tech workers far outstrips supply and, as such, those workers are in a secure position to leverage their value. The collective disruption these valued workers can cause is arguably greater than in any other industry. Employees in tech companies are also often shareholders and so have the added ability to use their shareholder rights to influence the company’s direction or challenge decision making.

The traditional route for aggrieved employees to raise their concerns is typically through the formal structure of a works council or trade union, or by way of an internal grievance. But these routes are now seen as too narrow. Co-ordinating action via these formal structures also takes time and motivation. The introduction of social media and internal tools for collaboration has changed this landscape. Global mobilisation of employees can be fast, effortless and anonymous. In the wake of Wikileaks and the Panama Papers, employees have realised the power of putting confidential information into the public domain. They have identified a model that can be far more effective than going through internal processes.

How should companies respond?

Companies could treat collective disruption, such as walkouts, as unlawful. Tech companies are, however, often rooted in principles of freedom of expression and creativity. Quashing or ignoring employee activism runs the risk of hypocrisy. Employee engagement is important to develop trust and control activism; a company’s internal processes should be more attractive to the employee than external whistleblowing.

It is clear that companies need to engage with their workforce in a more meaningful way. Employee engagement is a hot topic in the listed company environment. The UK Corporate Governance Code for listed companies may therefore provide good guidance on how one might engage with the workforce. It sets out one of three means for workforce engagement:

  1. the appointment of an employee to the board;
  2. the establishment of a formal workforce advisory panel; and/or
  3. the appointment of a designated non-executive director to speak regularly with the workforce.

Other companies may be able to learn something from the way in which the Code is being applied by others – this detail can often be found in listed company annual reports and accounts.

The tech industry is uniquely placed to shape the landscape of workforce engagement. Efforts might be made to develop a technological solution that motivates employees, offering an effective avenue for activism, whilst also preserving the managerial prerogative that is necessary for the efficient and profitable running of a company.