How corporate leaders can respond to employee activism

Wayfair employees protest in Boston over the company’s contract with US Customs and Border Patrol.
Wayfair employees protest in Boston over the company’s contract with US Customs and Border Patrol.
Image: REUTERS/Faith Ninivaggi
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On a late September day in 2019, clients of the software company Chef found their products, which help companies manage their digital infrastructure, weren’t working. The glitch wasn’t an accident. Days before, Chef employees had learned via Twitter that the company had contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Protests on social media followed, culminating in programmer Seth Vargo removing a key piece of code from the sharing site GitHub, causing the software to be unusable for several hours.

It took the company’s leadership a few days to respond substantively to employees’ questions about its relationship with the agencies, which were being fiercely criticized at the time for their family separation policies. The answer: Chef would fulfill its contracts with ICE and CBP. “I do not believe that it is appropriate, practical, or within our mission to examine specific government projects with the purpose of selecting which US agencies we should or should not do business,” then-CEO Barry Crist wrote in a blog post.

“Contrary to Chef’s CEO’s publicly posted response, I do think it is the responsibility of businesses to evaluate how and for what purposes their software is being used, and to follow their moral compass,” Vargo, the engineer who removed the code from Github, told TechCrunch.

A few days later, Crist changed course, agreeing to sunset Chef’s contracts with the federal agencies this year, and donate the money it earned from them (a reported $95,500) to charities that work with affected migrants.

The shift, Crist acknowledged, was due in large part to Chef’s employee activists. “While I and others privately opposed this and various other related policies, we did not take a position despite the recommendation of many of our employees,” Crist wrote. “Over the past year, many of our employees have constructively advocated for a change in our position, and I want to thank them.”

In September, Chef was bought by business software company Progress; the contracts expired before the acquisition and weren’t renewed, per a Progress spokesperson.

The controversy was just one recent example of how, across the tech industry and beyond, a growing number of employees are pushing companies to use their power to advocate on a range of political and social issues. And some corporate leaders are beginning to agree.

From Starbucks to Google, companies are taking a stand on issues like pay and internal harassment policies, respectively. At the same time, leaders at firms like Amazon and Wayfair seem blindsided by employee activism, working to push back and suppress demands instead of acting on them.

Workplace activism doesn’t need to be a threat. We already are seeing evidence that companies that respond thoughtfully and strategically, and share power with employees, can become stronger for it.

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Opening a Pandora’s box

It’s useful to remember that employees didn’t suddenly wake up one day and decide their companies needed to be better. The companies themselves laid the foundation for that kind of activism. “We’ve seen [workplace activism] growing over the past eight years or so, but when we were studying it initially, more companies tried to use it for their own benefit,” says Kate Bullinger, president of United Minds, a management consulting group that leads employee engagement work. “Then you go headlong into this year, where there are so many issues people feel strongly about.”

More than a decade ago, companies in Silicon Valley and beyond gave themselves a purpose beyond making money, promising to shape a more accessible, connected, and inclusive future. Now, they’re among the most powerful corporations in the world, in turn transforming the purview of business to make up for gridlocked political systems and work with a greater good in mind.

This stated purpose also changed how these companies treated their employees. Leaders at places like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Netflix advocated for radical transparency between corporate leaders and employees, and fostered a culture optimized for employee happiness, where workers were—in theory—listened to and valued.

“It’s the companies that were first actively encouraging this kind of thing and saw it as an advantage,” says Alison Taylor, executive director of Ethical Systems, a research group at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Skilled, highly educated, in-demand employees believed this message. They sought jobs at companies they were told had values that aligned with their own, where they believed their opinions mattered. So it rankled many when they saw their employers doing things that seemed out of step with their personal values, like providing furniture to a US government agency separating migrant children from their parents, traumatizing workers with the internet’s most horrific images, perpetuating a toxic work environment, offering big payouts to accused harassers, or making new tools for the Chinese government to use in its suppression efforts.

Employees took to social media or talked to journalists to amplify their demands for change. They broke confidentiality agreements and exposed companies’ internal communiques, many without much fear of reprisal, due to their specialized skill set. Debates once relegated to internal channels spilled into the public sphere. Suddenly the public expected to know companies’ stances on a range of issues, and not stating an opinion was a statement in itself.

“These companies started with this radical transparency—’everything is on the table, we listen to everyone’—and it bounced up and hit them in the ass,” Taylor says. “They opened up a space they didn’t intend.”

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Strategic response

Corporate leaders were suddenly expected to conduct business in line not only with their own stated values, but with employees’ individual opinions, or risk public shaming that could cost them customers. “C suite people I talk to are freaking out and are really anxious. They’re feeling besieged and like they don’t have any choices,” Taylor says. “It may therefore have given other leaders this idea that it’s a Pandora’s box—you’ll get swallowed up by these debates.”

As employees and the public clamored for change, companies had a range of responses. Some wound down lucrative projects, as Chef did, or donated to worthy causes in an effort to appease employees, or changed their internal policies; others issued statements, but chose not to change their actions.

The propensity of a company to get involved on a particular issue depends on several factors. One of the strongest is whether the issue directly affects employees or their own communities. That’s the reason why Amazon and Microsoft joined court cases to fight US president Donald Trump’s attempts to deport immigrants who arrived to the US undocumented as children, and why the CEO of Ford Motors spoke out against Trump’s so-called Muslim ban in 2017—the population of Dearborn, Michigan, where the automaker is headquartered, is roughly 40% Muslim.

Being consumer-facing, versus a business-to-business company, is also more likely to prompt a company to take a public stance. Though such positions can sometimes be divisive, as was Nike’s ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick, they can also boost sales. (This approach can also backfire if it reads as tone-deaf or inauthentic.)

Though there’s still debate about whether it’s in companies’ best interest to take a stand on social issues, many are coming around to the idea—often when pushed by employees—that they can, and should. “Businesses need to deal with [political] polarization and diversity and attitudes about these kinds of conversations,” Taylor says. “Companies can’t wall themselves off from society. If it’s going on in society, of course it’s in the workplace.”

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The empowered employees of the future

The next generation of workers has grown up in a world of global conflict and polarized debate. They value authenticity and inclusivity and have learned that it’s cool to care. As they enter the workforce, they’ll come with even stronger expectations that their employers will take a stance.

But though they may be united in their belief that business is an important stage for activism, their views on specific issues may grow more divergent—especially if the many company trying to diversify their workforces actually succeed at it.“Any diverse organization will have diverse views. We need to get straight how much we expect a company to reflect our values,” Taylor says.

To do this, she says, leaders need to create channels where that conversation can happen. “Rather than trying to shut it down and shut these people up, let’s get it all out on the table and have a bottom-up process,” Taylor says. “We’re going to consult our employees about things like where our human rights and environmental money should go.”

In addition to creating space, corporate leaders need to give up some of their own power to employees so that these debates can result in real action.

Not everyone has to agree, but employees need to feel that their voices were heard and that they have some power in the company’s decisions—which means corporate leaders should be prepared to give up some of their power, and invest the time to engage in more consultative decision-making.

“You won’t take every idea on board, but you can make better, informed decisions,” Bullinger says. “If leaders can step up and do a better job listening like they have this year, it can lead to better decisions for the company moving forward.”