How to harness the activist energy of employees

Pushing company leaders to do better.
Pushing company leaders to do better.
Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” This bit of wisdom, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, has been on my mind a lot lately.

When Spotify, L’Oreal, and Apple professed to care about racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, they were called out for not having a single Black board member. When FedEx, Amazon, and Walmart aired ads celebrating essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, critics panned them for glossing over the risks of working in warehouses and grocery stores. When BP, Shell, and Total pledged to cut carbon emissions to “net zero,” they took flak for ignoring 90% of the emissions they cause.

It’s great that businesses are being more vocal about the climate crisis, racial justice, and other major issues. It’s even better to see them held to account—by customers, investors, and the public—when their actions don’t live up to their words.

But how can companies meet these heightened expectations? It all starts with their workers.

The power of workers

 Four in five US employees say it’s important that their company has a purpose which contributes to society and creates meaningful work. But only half of those say their company’s stated purpose makes any difference.

That’s not surprising. Plenty of companies confine “purpose” (a trendy buzzword for a company’s impact on people and planet) to an under-resourced CSR team, often siloed from the rest of the business. It doesn’t help that most companies still conflate purpose with philanthropy, donating money and volunteering time to causes that are often unrelated to the core business or employees’ skills.

Why is this disconnect a problem? Employees who feel their day-to-day work experience doesn’t reflect their values are less motivated to contribute to a company’s success. What’s more, they’re increasingly likely to leave, an expensive risk made worse during the pandemic-induced “Great Resignation.”

Workers who care enough about their company might vociferously challenge their business leaders’ decisions—see Netflix and McKinsey for two recent examples. But there’s a less combative and arguably more constructive way to put that passion to use: Actively listen to employees, seek their input on an impact strategy, and connect that strategy to every worker’s job.

Identify what matters to employees

Activities linked to so-called purpose typically fizzle and fail for two (often related) reasons: first, they’re disconnected from the realities of doing business; and second, employees aren’t convinced the company actually cares.

Executives can avoid irrelevance and cynicism by finding out which social and environmental topics their workers want the company to address. By directly relating those concerns to business practices like supplier arrangements, production methods, product attributes, people management, or customer relationships, the resulting initiatives are more likely to stick.

Surveys are a good way to collect the views of as many employees as possible. Town hall meetings can provide greater insight into topics workers might already be vocal about. As another starting point, a look at existing internal initiatives—employee-led LGBT+ support groups, women-focused mentoring programs, environmental champions, and such—provides clues about the issues on employees’ minds. This information is crucial for the next step: developing an impact strategy.

Involve workers in setting the strategy

Without an impact strategy, companies can find themselves wondering how, and even whether, to respond to the latest hot-button issue dominating the news cycle. Trying to respond to everything is distracting, if not impossible. But never responding to anything could cause a full-blown reputation crisis. A good impact strategy avoids these risks by setting out measurable targets and clear priorities to guide where the business should focus its resources.

In the early stages of developing a strategy, it’s important to involve a cross-section of employees from every major department. Their views can be gathered in small meetings, big workshops or, ideally, both. Input from workers with different perspectives and experience, but a shared interest in improving the company’s impact, helps hone priorities, identify challenges, and improve the collaboration and coordination that’s so vital to achieving impact goals.

Ultimately, executives need to make tough decisions on what goes into the strategy, and what doesn’t—decisions that could disappoint some workers. So, it’s essential to be clear on the who, why, and how of decision making in order to get the buy-in needed from employees when it comes time to implement the strategy.

Enable everyone to act

All the planning in the world means nothing if it’s not followed by action. For businesses serious about improving their social impact, that means giving all employees—not just a privileged few—the power to act on the company’s commitments.

Businesses responding to the climate crisis need help from the finance team and investor relations, not just operations and facilities managers. Brands moving away from plastic packaging need sales and marketing on board as much as the R&D and procurement teams. Employers pledging to improve diversity, equity and inclusion would do well to tap into the networks of their youngest talent, rather than rely solely on changing the behavior of senior hiring managers.

Implementing an impact strategy starts the same way as every other change management effort: by providing clarity on the company’s goals and priorities. Most executives leave “employee engagement” at that—a slide deck, a video presentation, a blog on the intranet, and maybe a few posters around the office. What they often neglect to do is to activate workers by helping them understand how the impact strategy is relevant to their everyday decisions and responsibilities.

At Today Do This, we start by getting employees across the business to think through three questions: What skills and responsibilities are inherent in your role? Which of the company’s impact priorities grabs your interest? What can you start doing right now to help advance that priority in your day-to-day work?

For a lot of executives, this suggests a major shift—a more bottom-up approach to making things happen. Reluctant leaders will frustrate employees’ efforts to act in line with the company’s impact goals. Receptive leaders will give staff more freedom to turn their ideas into action. Committed leaders will go even further: incentivizing workers to act, and delivering on employees’—and the wider world’s—expectations as a result.

After all, actions speak louder than words.