Employee activism: a HR imperative

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Management, HR and communications departments of large companies today are rightfully laser-focused on employee satisfaction and engagement. While employee engagement is undoubtedly central to company success and is the underlying foundation for high-performing companies, we’ve found (see Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism) that only three in 10 employees are deeply engaged with their employers. HR leaders may find this disturbing or unsurprising – or both. In any case, it should be a call to action to improve the employee experience.

What is the call to action? It is a new social movement that we call ‘employee activism’ that generates extensive internal and external benefits. While deep engagement on the whole is weak, the good news is that the workforce is multi-dimensional. Some employees make their engagement visible, defend their employers from criticism and behave as active advocates, online and off. We call these employees ‘activists’ and they comprise over a fifth of the workforce. Employers can’t afford to miss the open window of opportunity to lean in and capitalise on this movement that will only increase in the years ahead.

There are a number of factors that drive employee activism. Organisational leadership is most important for influencing employee activism, from making the company an employer of choice to building a reputation of trustworthiness and demonstrating that it listens and responds to employees. This, however, is not to the exclusion of other organisational activities and characteristics which have significant roles as well.

The HR performance review - by employees

We asked respondents to rate their employers on a series of 29 attitudinal statements covering a wide range of organisational qualities. None of the 29 statements generated glowing ratings – the highest rating was given by 42% of employees for ‘knowing enough to explain to others what my employer does’. 

As part of this list, we asked employees what they felt about their employer’s HR/employee development activities using the following statements: 

  • ‘My employer has a clear code of conduct’ (36%)
  • ‘My employer provides a safe working environment’ (34%)
  • ‘My employer conducts regular performance reviews’ (33%)
  • ‘My employer treats all employees fairly regardless of their race, gender, age, sexual orientation or cultural differences’ (32%)
  • ‘My employer provides me with the training and resources I need to do my job well’ (27%)
  • ‘I have many opportunities to grow and learn at my employer’ (26%)
  • ‘My employer pays employees fairly’ (24%)

Of these HR attributes evaluated, four surpassed the overall engagement average of 30%. A relatively steep drop comes with provisions of training and resources, opportunities for growth and fair pay.

HR’s driving influence

Some of these issues weigh more heavily than others for driving employee activism. Our study used regression analysis to determine how much each statement was correlated with the likelihood for activism. Among these factors, the two that are responsible for positively impacting activism are training and resources and opportunities to grow and learn. For an employee activism program to be effective, HR leaders should focus on improving the perceptions of these two critical employee experiences.

Prioritising the factors for driving employee activism does not mean excluding the other factors in the list above. In fact, one particular segment of employees is small in size (11%) but outspoken when something seems amiss in the workplace. This group, the ‘re-activists’ or ‘whistleblowers’ are more critical than the average global employee of their employer’s fair treatment of employees, workplace safety and code of conduct. HR leaders take note: approximately two-thirds of this group post messages, pictures or videos about their employer or work online, so they have an amplified voice. Ensure basic workplace standards are adhered to and don’t be shy about flaunting any ‘best places to work’ accolades as reinforcement of your commitment to being an engaged employer! 

Employees will continue to rise to new heights of influence and are quickly becoming one of an organisation’s strongest assets. To ensure they define brand and reputation in the most authentic light and win support during the tough times as well as the easier ones, employers need to provide a culture of trust that is rooted at the leadership level and reflected in HR and Employee Development policies and activities. 


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