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CEOs risk ignoring new workforce transformation: employees’ social issue activism


“The strength and speed of staff unrest has come as a stunning development …


“Companies in all sectors need to start regarding employees as their most significant interest group.”


That’s a striking conclusion of a new Business for Social Responsibility analysis of today’s — and tomorrow’s — workforce: “Exploring employee activism: Why this stakeholder group can no longer be ignored” .  


The report reflects the evolution of  a contemporary workforce far different from that of earlier generations — a workforce that reflects the epic changes in society via globalization, technology and politics. And, if current sociological research is correct, a workforce with important characteristics that will be enforced as millennials increasingly join the ranks.


Many employers have already had to face petitions, demonstrations, “strikes” and, perhaps most important, public embarrassment as employees question company strategies and tactics. The not-button issues range from climate change, gender equal opportunity and immigration to benefits for contract workers and, as some employees see it , questionable company relationships with the military, media and the “security community”.


And all this in the age of the many demands for transparency and retribution for alleged sexual harassment in the workplace. 


So, key observations in the BSR report are especially timely: 


“…one of the most significant trends … is the emergence of employees as a newly empowered and vocal stakeholder group with an unprecedented ability to impact a company’s strategy and reputation … it would be a big mistake for companies in other industries [other than issues already being addressed in the technology sector] to overlook the potential for employee activism …


“Employees are speaking out on questions that relate to company values and investment decisions, and they [are] calling out hypocrisy when and where they see it …


“Indeed, employee activism can inspire other stakeholders to act. When close to 7,000 Amazon employees signed a petition calling for the company to adopt a more ambitious approach regarding climate change, the drive gained plenty of publicity. The petition was supported by … the two biggest proxy advisors to institutional investors. Even though the resolution was voted down, employee activism is increasingly likely to generate civil society campaigns and trigger shareholder activism …”


“Today’s employees are empowered to dissolve traditional boundaries — both physical and knowledge-based — between companies and the societies in which they operate. Management should respond with a robust, strategic approach to stakeholder engagement, placing their own employees squarely at the center of the effort.”


Stakeholder engagement indeed.