5 ways CEOs can take advantage of employee activism

Now more than ever, leaders facing political, technological and societal tumult in their industries must create rather than suppress environments enabling employee activism. Wait, seriously?

Yes. Seriously.

As more employees stand up for what they believe in, including petitioning within their organization, employers can either hope the trend abates (not a good strategy) or make an effort to direct this potential energy productively. Microsoft’s recent experience with employees gathering online to voice concerns about the company’s contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a prime example of why business leaders need to know where they stand, have mechanisms at their disposal for authentically addressing their teams, and shift their thinking to “employees are the first public” before an issue arises, not after the fact.

CEOs must equip themselves — and seek the counsel of forward-thinking communications professionals — to navigate muddy waters, encourage employees to support the organization’s values, and voice their own opinions. It’s daunting, but there are ways for your CEO to enable employee activism. Here are five examples of how to start today:

  1. Know your values
    A recent and phenomenal example of this is Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian who made the decision to end discounts for NRA members after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Bastian knew Delta’s values and realized this was not a discussion the airline wanted to be a part of. He was so confident in the decision that he did not ask the board for their permission or warn them of the decision. Knowing your company’s values will not only help in a time of crisis or quick decision-making, but it will encourage and guide employees to live by them.
  2. Have open and accessible methods for employees to channel their activism
    Salesforce’s “Volunteer Time Off” gives employees six paid days per year to participate in volunteer activities. Having this type of policy in place shows employees that the company invests in their ability to make a difference and get involved — on their own time. Rather than forcing employees to take personal vacation time or sick days, this policy gives employees the availability to take days, when needed, for causes they care about.
  3. Know where your executives’ hearts lie
    Executives serve as role models to all employees within an organization. Ensuring executives understand the causes supported by the firm is crucial to radiating values throughout an organization. When the government came calling to ask Apple’s chief, Tim Cook, to open a backdoor to customers’ iPhone data, Mr. Cook declined. He has since said that “privacy is a fundamental human right.”
  4. Put in place a robust employee advocacy program before the crisis
    Initiating an employee advocacy program aligned to your company’s preferred causes provides an outlet to reach your people and inspire action. Bloomberg LP offers employees the ability to have their donations matched by its foundation and also uses social media employee advocacy software to encourage employees who have volunteered for a particular cause to share related content from the foundation.
  5. Prepare to talk (and listen) to all sides.
    To successfully and appropriately encourage activism, employers must engage all sides of any debate dispassionately. It’s important to have company values, but it is even more important to ensure none of your employees feel they are inaccurately represented or discriminated against. All activism policies should be put in the context of the service or product your company delivers to its customers rather than politics. Above all, be prepared to tolerate respectful dissent. This encourages your people to have and express their opinions, but also makes room for them to support the company’s brand.