Cappelli: What to make of the new employee activism

We have seen a fair bit in the news recently about employee protests of various kinds. Unlike the issues associated with trade unions, these protests are directed mainly at company business decisions. They range from efforts to change customers, such as Google’s work on U.S. military projects; to complaints about the company’s environmental practices, as at Amazon; to internal management practices like sexual-harassment issues again at Google; to social-policy decisions, as with Wayfair’s protests about proposed immigration raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

What do we make of this? Does it reflect something fundamental about changes at work and, if so, what? Or is it just a few “man bites dog” stories: With unions and strikes fading from the picture, any signs of worker complaints are newsworthy?

I was in separate discussions with HR people on this topic this month, and the views on it were quite split. One group, which had many senior people in it, thought that this was something truly new and fundamentally different, while a second, with people from employee-relations backgrounds, thought it was not much more than a few isolated incidents.

See also: Workplace inequity is increasingly on employees’ minds

It is true that the examples of real protests–walking off the job, rallies and so forth–have been extremely rare. Petitions being circulated are more common and arguably do not get reported. What has been happening much more frequently and is almost never reported is pressure from employees informally in the form of complaints on employee forums and through supervisors.

Some of those complaints are directed outward, trying to get the CEO or company representatives to take a stand on public issues. Most of those have happened in response to Trump administration decisions, such as the president’s statements about immigrants and immigration or after the Charlottesville demonstrations and attack. It is hard to know how common those are, but I suspect that every company that spoke out about those issues did so in part because of employee complaints, and my guess is that at least that many who did not speak out nevertheless had substantial pressure from employees to do so.

No doubt these socially motivated protests and pressures reflect in part the polarization of U.S. politics broadly defined and views on social issues that underlie those politics. It is no surprise that most of these protests happened at California-based companies with a high proportion of college-educated workers whose politics are much more progressive than those of the administration in Washington. It is also no surprise that we have not heard of such protests in companies located in red or conservative states, where the political values of employees are likely quite different.

Related: Reading the signs of the times

It is easy to say that this wave of social activism is driven by a new generation of workers whose values are different. I don’t believe that. These protests are quite recent, and new hires in this period don’t change the overall workforce much. If you feel inclined to reach for the all-purpose “millennial” explanation, remember that the oldest “millennials” have been in work for close to 20 years now, so they aren’t dominated by new hires. In no way are these workers more liberal and socially minded than the baby boomers were when they entered the workforce, and we didn’t see any of this then.

I think other things are at work. Perhaps the main one has to do with the companies and the way they portray themselves. A great many–and perhaps most–companies have figured out that it helps their business to appear to be socially responsible. If you present yourself that way, if your motto is “Don’t be evil,” for example, and then it turns out that you are doing something that isn’t so easy to square with high moral values–such as doing business with unsavory clients or ducking sexual-harassment issues–then you look like a hypocrite. The complaints are at least in part because you told us you (and we) were doing good–that’s partly why we came here and why we identify with you–and now you’ve sullied that, along with how I feel about myself working here.

Another way to say this is that it is about corporate culture.

See also: Does the presence of employees on corporate boards help companies?

Social media also plays a key role here. Employers no longer control what their employees hear about what the company is doing. It is not that difficult to reach most of the employees in a company with a social-media campaign critical of the company’s decisions. Getting a petition with, say, 1,000 signatures from employees gets attention, and it may not be that difficult to get in a big company with 100,000 employees.

I confess, I do not know how broadly the sentiments behind these protests run outside of West Coast tech companies.

What to do about them is even more difficult to answer. I have real sympathy for corporate leaders: Do you take a position that many, or even most, employees support only to irritate others? How about the potential disruption of the protests per se? Vox reports that, this week, Google employees railed outside company offices (in the same complex as Wharton’s San Francisco campus) to demand that the company reinstate employees who were disciplined for internal snooping on company activities (says the company) or organizing protests against its work with the Customs and Border Patrol (say the protesters). The New York Times reports that the company has engaged union-suppression consultants, among other things, in response to employee activism.

Who says labor relations is dead?

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Peter Cappelli
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He can be emailed at [email protected]