One 39-year-old studio hand who had moved to Georgia to work in its film and TV industry six years ago and supports a family there told Buzzfeed that the potential boycott would cause damage to people’s lives, more than it would support justice. “It’s not going to affect the politicians and the actors,” he said of the possible boycott. “They’re still going to keep going to work in other places like they always have. But with us here, it’s going to destroy us.”

Welcome to the dark side of employee activism. We’re just beginning to see how it gets as messy as any other democratic process, if not more so, when it pits one group of workers’ needs against another’s. In this case, the divide is not even centered on the morality of the abortion bill (though that tension must exist too), but instead on how best to respond to it. Employees fighting the same cause must grapple with an old question: Is disengagement the right answer?

A nascent movement

Nearly 40% of American workers could be called “employee activists,” according to a new report by the communications firm Weber Shandwick, which defined the term as “people who have spoken up to support and/or criticize their employer’s actions over a controversial societal issue.” The survey found widespread support, across generations, for the right to voice dissent at work, but noted that nearly half of millennial employees fit the employee activist label themselves, compared to a third of Gen-Xers and only 27% of baby boomers.

Millennials were also most likely to say they believe “employees can make a greater impact on the world than business leaders can,” suggesting that, yes, employee activism is on the rise for demographic reasons alone. But employees are not naive, either: 79% said they feel advocating for an employer to change a policy can put their jobs at risk.

Clearly, employee activism is far more complicated than consumer boycotts or other forms of collective action. Even once a person accepts the personal risk of joining a collective action at work, they may still risk offending colleagues who don’t share in their outrage, or worse, putting someone else’s security and income on the line, when that someone may sit down the hall or come face-to-face with them at the next all-hands staff meeting.

Over decades, community organizers have developed processes for building consensus and rallying the troops, making sure all voices feel heard. Employee activism, however, isn’t there yet, and what’s unfolding in Georgia suggests it’s still a wild west; we can likely expect a few minefields in future. “It seems that there will need to be more art and science to how and when you respond [to employee protests], and part of that will be based on data and what do our employees think and feel,” says Samuelson.

“This is going to get more complicated,” she adds, “not less so.”

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