Workplace Activism: The macro and the micro

When discussing workplace activism with businesses, we are often asked to cite examples. There are the obvious examples: protests, strikes, mass resignations. But workplace activism isn’t just about the ‘macro’. It is also about the ‘micro’: the regular, day-to-day, forms of activism that help to challenge assumptions, drive change and a form part of general risk-management.

Whether it’s macro or micro, it is important to remember that workplace activism is not a new concept. But it has been amplified in recent times by social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo, climate change, and the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As workers increasingly seek to challenge their employers’ views which might prioritise profit over people and the planet, we have seen activism within the workplace impact individuals, as well as organisations.

In this post, we look at some recent examples of workplace activism. There should be no doubt that workplace activism is becoming a defining feature of the workplace and many employers are, or will be, considering how they respond to, manage, and pre-empt activism within their workplaces. If you’d like to hear more about this topic, you can visit our dedicated web page.

Where you work

No one can ignore the shift in the balance of power that the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic have brought to the workforce. Change is certainly afoot for corporate culture – and it is being driven by the views, desires and expectations of the workforce coming out of (or going back into) the pandemic and lockdown, who are making more informed decisions on where to work based on factors beyond pay and reward. 

In recent months, we have seen employees at Apple collectively write to their employer asking for more flexible working conditions. There have also been reports of Amazon reverting on plans to require staff to return to the office following employee backlash, and similar reports from Dyson after employees complained about their employer’s policy on working from home. As businesses continue to explore hybrid working models (whether fully, partially, or not at all), the collective and individual views of the workforce are paramount and will drive corporate culture, recruitment, retention rates, productivity and engagement in the coming months and years.

Planet over profit 

As the focus on ESG and sustainability continues, the spotlight is very much on the actions private organisations are taking to drive change. Workforces are increasingly looking to their employers to take a stance and understand what steps they are taking to address climate issues.

In recent years, we have seen Amazon employees stage a walk-out in protest over their employer’s inaction on climate change. There is also increasing anecdotal evidence of younger generations of workers wanting their employers to demonstrate how they are prioritising the planet over profit and these factors being high on their list of priorities alongside pay and reward when choosing where to work.

Your boss

The collective views of the workforce can be strong enough to dictate who runs the show. Recently it was reported how workers at a large game development company staged a walkout in protest over the CEO’s awareness of harassment allegations and called for the CEO to step down. The CEO was not personally accused of the allegations, but the walkout was in protest to his alleged involvement and intervention in the investigations and accused inaction in response to his knowledge of sexual misconduct claims. 

What’s interesting about this example is the speed at which the activism occurred - the walkout was planned on Twitter and took place just two hours later, with protests happening outside of the company’s offices. 

Pay and reward

Whilst it might sound crass, money has, and always will be, a key driver in behaviour for many. It may be questionable how much financial reward can change corporate behaviour in the long-term, but in the short-term we are increasingly seeing organisations adopt non-financial metrics into their performance and reward assessments (including ESG and diversity and inclusion). This pressure is not just coming from shareholders and consumers, but also within the organisation and the wider workforce. Whilst there is nothing new about workers protesting over pay and working conditions, the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic have amplified inequalities in pay across organisations and we are seeing workers feel more emboldened to express their collective views.

What you sell and produce (and your evening viewing)

In October 2021, Netflix staff and other activists staged a walkout outside the company’s LA offices in response to material being offered by the streaming giant alleged to contain transphobic content. The activists specifically called for the organisation to fund more trans and non-binary talent and take measures to avoid transphobia and hate speech. What makes this example of workplace activism particularly interesting is how Netflix issued a statement ahead of the rally in support of the activists.

We have also seen workers protesting over products sold by their employers. In 2019, Walmart workers in the US staged a walkout in protest to its stores selling guns and other firearm products.

Where you stay

In 2019, the Sultan of Brunei imposed a new law which imposed death by stoning for gay sex in the Sultanate. As one of the richest men in the world, the Sultan owns nine luxury hotels including The Dorchester. 

In addition to celebrities voicing their opposition of the laws and calling for public boycott of the luxury hotels, workforces of organisations without any links to the hotel group were asked to take a stance and publicly express what action they would be taking in response, including issuing bans on their workforces staying in these hotels for work or business purposes. 

What you wear

There is an increasing trend for consumers to make better and more informed decisions on what clothes they wear – but this is not solely down to the sustainability of the item and its origins or durability, it is also down to the location and conditions in which the item was made and how the workers have been treated. 

Recently, we have seen reports by workers of suppliers to a Chinese fashion giant claiming excessive working hours (including up to 75 hour working weeks, back-to-back shifts and only having one day off per month). Using mainly migrants, workers claim they were being paid per item rather than per hour (in a similar way to the gig-economy where workers might be paid per job or ‘gig’, than receive national minimum wage). Whilst these working practices would clearly violate labour laws in many countries, it is only when they are brought to the public’s attention that consumers can make better informed choices.

Changing terms and conditions 

There has been a lot of scrutiny recently by Governments and industry bodies on the methods used by employers to change employees’ terms and conditions, particularly the use of fire and re-hire practices. This scrutiny and challenge is also coming from within the workforce. 

In November 2021, workers at Clarks went on strike over their employer’s fire and rehire policy and recently, a baker who had worked at one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains for over 13 years tweeted about his dismissal after refusing to sign up to a new contract with changes to his working hours. Whilst the employer denied the allegations being made by the employee and sought to explain the changes being proposed, the tweet soon went viral and is a useful reminder of how quickly employees can become activists within their workplaces via social media and other communication channels.

Whilst many of these examples fall on the macro side of activism (frankly, it’s the macro stories that make the headlines), it is important for businesses to remember that the regular, day-to-day, micro forms of activism within the workplace can also help to drive change, challenge assumptions and improve company culture – whether that be the learnings of employee network groups, feedback shared in exit interviews or data collated from employee engagement surveys.