Leading in an Age of Employee Activism

Employees are demanding that managers engage on topics like climate change and racial equity — and leaders need to be ready to respond.

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Brian Stauffer/theispot.com

Leaders have been encouraging employees to speak up for years — after all, a healthy organization needs people willing to point out problems and share their ideas for improvement. But having invited dialogue, many managers are now finding that they are getting more than they bargained for.

Increasingly, employees are starting challenging conversations with management: “So, what’s our policy on Black Lives Matter, gender equity, and climate change? Or human rights in our supply chain?”

Some leaders have responded by saying that their organization is apolitical; handing off some hard-to-avoid issues to a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program; or keeping to business as usual.

But this course is being challenged — and with it the leadership agenda. We are entering an age of employee activism that may well upend our assumptions about power within organizations. Over half of the 1,500 employees we surveyed said they usually or always speak up to influence organizational action on wider societal or environmental issues. In a 2019 survey by the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, over 80% of companies predicted a rise in workforce activism.1 Meanwhile, questions about an organization’s purpose and its potential impact on social inequity and other issues will become more vital concerns for future workers, according to a recent report drawing on discussions with 40 chief human resources officers of global companies.2

All of this signals a seismic challenge, because leaders are rarely equipped to respond to issues outside the traditional business management frame. Their unskilled reactions can lead to dire consequences for themselves, their organizations, and ultimately society and the environment.



1.Future of Work: Adapting to the Democratised Workplace,” PDF file (London: Herbert Smith Freehills, 2021), www.herbertsmithfreehills.com.

2.Back2Better Whitepaper: How the Chief HR Officers of the World’s Largest Companies Are Preparing for the Post-COVID Era,” PDF file (San Francisco: Executive Networks, 2020), www.executivenetworks.com.

3. M. Reitz, J. Higgins, and E. Day-Duro, “The Do’s and Don’ts of Employee Activism: How Organizations Respond to Voices of Difference,” PDF file (Berkhamsted, England: Hult International Business School, 2021), www.meganreitz.com.

4.Employee Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (Up)Rising,” PDF file (New York: Weber Shandwick, 2019), www.webershandwick.com.

5.Edelman Trust Barometer 2021,” PDF file (New York: Edelman, 2021), www.edelman.com.

6. B. Armstrong, “Coinbase Is a Mission Focused Company,” Coinbase, Sept. 27, 2020, https://blog.coinbase.com.

7. J. Fried, “Changes at Basecamp,” Jason Fried, April 26, 2021, https://world.hey.com/jason.

8.How to Set Up an ERG for Black and Ethnic Minority Employees,” Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Sept. 8, 2020, www.cipd.co.uk.

9.We Must Dismantle White Supremacy,” Ben & Jerry’s, June 1, 2020, www.benjerry.com.

10. R. McConnell and J. Zwegers, “MCI Tracks Corporate America’s Early Response to BLM,” American Marketing Association, Sept. 8, 2020, www.ama.org.

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