Engagement

King Midas, communications, and employee engagement: Be careful what you wish for

Remember King Midas, who wished that whatever he touched turned to gold?

His wish was granted, and all was exhilarating until he became hungry. When he touched food, it, too, turned to gold. “I’ll starve,” moaned Midas. “Perhaps this was not such a good wish after all.”

For decades, communicators and companies “wished” for employee engagement – for employees to read our messages, support our companies, advance our causes, and join our ambassador programs.

Congratulations, communicators: Your wish is granted. But like King Midas, we may learn this universal lesson: Be careful what you wish for.

Because employee engagement is coming your way – and in ways we’ve never experienced. It’s called employee activism, and companies, communicators, and CEOs are taking notice.

Ron Williams, the former CEO of Aetna, reacted to employee activists at his company: “I can’t imagine that happening 20 years ago,” he said. “CEOs have to manage all that.”

And now, so do you.

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What does employee activism look like?

For the past several years, employee activism has been in the news, with Twitter accounts and hashtags to match. To mention a few:

  • In fall 2018, more than 20,000 Google employees left their desks worldwide after the New York Times published an expose which revealed payouts to several Google executives accused of misconduct.
  • In June 2019, Wayfair employees walked out to protest their company’s contract to sell beds to detention centers along the southern U.S. border.
  • In October 2019, about 2,000 Amazon employees held a walkout to pressure the company to take a stand on climate change.

But don’t be mollified by news headlines. If you think employee activism is only at tech or Fortune 500 companies, think again. I’ve heard from clients and companies who are seeing employee activism even with minor policy changes and through a range of social issues.

Who are employee activists?

According to research by Weber Shandwick, about 38 percent of employees consider themselves employee activists, speaking up about their employer’s actions. If you count the 11% who say they have considered speaking up, this segment rises to nearly 50%.

You won’t be surprised to hear that millennial employees – those ages 23 to 38 – are the generation most likely to be employee activists. They also are significantly more likely than their older peers to speak out against the company.

Which brings us to recruitment and retention. Nearly nine out of 10, or 86 percent, of millennials would consider taking a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values align with their own, according to LinkedIn’s Workplace Culture report.

Employee activists know how to tell a story

Activist employees understand the value of consistent messaging and know how to tell their stories. Millennials grew up on social – backing causes in their personal lives – so they know how to motivate, organize and activate their colleagues.

They have new tools at their fingertips – like TheLayoff.com, where employees can discuss upcoming job reductions and Coworker.org, which will help amplify their cause. You’ve created tools they also can use – commenting on your intranet site, creating a new Slack or Yammer group dedicated to a political cause, or conversing on a private Facebook page.

What’s a communicator to do?

Here’s my prediction – employee activism will only grow. And it’s not a matter of if, but when. Now is the time to prepare.

Some advice from those who have experienced employee activism:

Listen. As communicators, it’s what we do best – keeping our ear to the ground to listen to what employees are saying. We need to be in constant contact with our employees, much more than through annual HR surveys.

We need to understand employees’ questions and concerns so you can respond before the issue escalates.
Revisit your vision, purpose and values. How often are you discussing your values with your employees? Dust them off and ask yourself if leadership’s actions match their words.

Are you willing to sacrifice short-term gain in the name of long-term purpose? If your answers are a resounding yes, good for you. If not, it’s time to rectify that imbalance.
Don’t play whack-a-mole with communications. You know what happens when you shut down communications? It becomes a whack-a-mole game where the issue inevitably pops up elsewhere.

It’s every company’s first instinct – just tell employees no or remove that intranet article receiving the negative feedback. In Amazon’s case, they sent employee activists the policy, reminding them that they could be fired. What did the employees do? They produced and shared a video on Twitter featuring employees holding signs saying, “We will not be silenced.”

Prepare for the worst; involve your best. Don’t wait until a crisis hits. Gather your communications, human resources and legal teams to decide in advance how you’ll handle any difficult conversations.

Meanwhile, identify your most engaged employees who could help you in a crisis – especially an internal one – by building trust with them through listening, recognition, and authentic conversation.

While I understand companies’ and communicators’ trepidation, my hope – my wish – for all communicators is that we embrace these activists. They are exceptional communicators – employees that could make a difference in our companies and our communities.

When I asked Emily Cunningham, a former Amazon employee, why she called out Jeff Bezos to do more on climate change during the company’s shareholder meeting, she said: “I am inspired by the bravery of people all over the world, and I think it will take people everywhere standing up, showing moral courage to shift our culture.”

Now it’s your turn, internal communicators. How will you respond to this next generation who will ask us to stand up and shift our respective cultures?

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