The Rise Of Activist Employees

05/22/2017 10:25 pm ET Updated May 23, 2017

The complex calculation large companies engage in to determine when to take a public stand on important societal issues must now take into account employee attitudes, according to a new survey of Corporate America’s workforce by Povaddo, an opinion research and issues management consultancy. While in the past corporate leaders have considered their policy positions primarily in the context of external influencers and consequences, in today’s world, this survey suggests that companies should increasingly consider their own workforce as key stakeholders.

The Povaddo study finds that the sort of activism Americans are demonstrating online, in marches, on campuses, and in town hall meetings is entering the workplace. Employees want their CEOs and corporations to take stands on important issues, and, surprisingly, this desire cuts across party and generational lines.

A distinct subset of the workforce can be identified as truly dedicated “activists” who expect their companies to speak out on social, environmental and public policy issues. In the short term, this employee desire for activism will likely affect recruiting and retention. What happens over a longer term if business leaders fail to respond to this new pressure group remains to be seen, but the data suggests that it could also impact competitiveness, productivity, sales and reputation.

The Activist Employee

Povaddo found that inside the nation’s largest companies, varying degrees of social activism exist that encompass all demographic groups and political affiliations:

· A clear majority of employees, fifty-seven percent, believe their CEOs should be more vocal on key social issues.

· Forty-five percent of all employees indicate that the actions a company takes on important societal issues impacts their employment decisions;

· Twenty-seven percent think that employees should pressure their CEOs to be more vocal on social issues; and,

· Finally, fifteen percent of all employees are dedicated activists – employees who regularly consume news on politics, expect their CEOs to be more vocal, and expect to work for a company that makes meaningful attempts at addressing social issues.

Led by Millennials, the activist segment tends to be younger, slightly more female than male, slightly more Democratic than Republican, and, interestingly, more management than non-management. This suggests that generational turnover will continue to push the activist boundaries of both the employee and employer. And, managers in companies will have a disproportionate impact on the view employees have of their CEO—which could either help retain or lose the company’s most talented employees.

To put some scale to these percentages, the average FORTUNE® 500 company has approximately 53,000 employees. Thus, translating these percentages into the number of employees at a typical FORTUNE® 500 company drives home the magnitude of these findings

  • Over 30,000 employees expect their CEOs be more public on social issues;
  • Nearly 24,000 employees say their company’s actions on important societal issues impacts their employment decisions;
  • Over 14,000 think employees should pressure their CEOs to be more vocal; and,
  • Almost 8,000 employees are dedicated activists.

Do CEOs have their finger on the pulse of employee attitudes?

If those numbers don’t get the attention of CEOs, this should: nearly two-thirds of employees either don’t think or don’t know if their CEO is aware of their views and the expectations they have of their company’s role in society. This majority sentiment holds true across every party affiliation and demographic group, including management and non-management employees alike.

The Povaddo study also found that silence is no longer golden for CEOs -- there will be a clear price to pay for inaction. If employees believe that their CEO and company are making no effort to address social issues, they are more likely to leave, reduce their level of engagement, and volunteer negative information about the company on social media.

Transformational change is coming to the workplace

These insights begin to paint a picture on the degree of transformation that’s coming to the workplace. The implications are significant and impact the entire company. For example, a company’s government relations team has a large group of new internal stakeholders besides their CEO and board—rank and file employees across the company. How does a government relations team harness and accommodate these employee interests? For Human Resources—what type of socially conscious benefits need to be offered to attract and keep these employees who want paid time off to build support for social issues, who want to invest in socially responsible funds in their 401(k) plans, and want to align their retirement plans with their company’s social commitments? What does it mean for chief marketing and brand officers if more than a quarter of employees are more likely to volunteer negative information about their company on social media for making no attempt to address social issues?

It’s no longer employee engagement—it’s fulfillment

Trends are important, but every company has its own unique culture, business model and workforce composition. Companies can take steps today to position themselves to attract and retain activist employees. First, “employee engagement” is a phrase that’s dated and no longer captures the full essence of what’s important for employees. “Employee fulfillment” best represents how activist employees view employment. Shifting this corporate mindset from employee engagement to fulfillment allows a company to think differently and develop policies and programs to meet societal goals that align with both their employees and the company at large.

For CEOs, this is a wakeup call. How well do you really know the expectations your employees have of you and your company to address societal issues? And, what’s the degree to which you will be willing to address their needs—in ways that have never been done before—to channel their interest to be involved in societal issues and push you to be more vocal on these issues? Additionally, it’s not just the mere act of publicly speaking out on issues and communicating this to your employees that matters. What you communicate—your message—is just as important. A CEO should clearly communicate the business reasons for addressing specific societal issues. Not every employee will agree with their CEO’s support on any given social issue, but letting your employees know that your support is being driven by business, not personal, reasons is essential.

The Promise and the Peril

These findings hold both the promise and the peril for CEOs. Harness the passion of your employees and reap the benefit. Or, remain silent and pay the cost. Pay the cost not just in terms of losing your best and brightest, but pay a cost in terms of your company’s reputation, too. Povaddo’s research and numerous studies show that the treatment of employees is a top consideration consumers use to determine if a company is a good corporate citizen. In this era of Trump, it’s important CEOs not lose sight of their employees and the societal expectations they have of their CEOs and companies. Do so at your company’s peril.

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