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The 2020s: decade of employee activism

16th December 2019

The age of deference to authority is over. What was once a natural, common instinct is in short supply. No longer is there an assumption that employers are laudable institutions with worthy intentions – or a sense of the need to bow down to managers and bosses. Employees want reassurance and proof of an employer’s commitment to a social and environmental ‘good’.

Protests by large numbers of Amazon staff in September 2019 led to action on making operations carbon neutral by 2040. Last year Wayfair employees downed tools over the company’s links to US border detention centres; Google staff walked out over responses to sexual harassment allegations. There have also been high-profile cases of individual activism. Tweets from a baker at Asda who’d lost his job after refusing to sign up to new contract changes went viral.

The trends towards activism is expected to have a substantial impact on organisational performance. Surveying board members and senior management in November 2019, the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills found an expectation that employee activism will lead to a 25% reduction in revenues. 95% of companies also expected a rise in the number of employees using social media such as Twitter to raise complaints and concerns about their company over the next five years.

In this new context, employers need joined Industrial Relations and Employee Relations expertise – not to ‘fight’ disruption and quash resistance, but as the bridge to achieving a new kind of equilibrium of mutual understanding and appreciation.

Activism is the result of a combination of factors: the ability to reach large audiences instantly via social media; the way in which organisations have become increasingly more slick and efficient over the past 30 years, but, at the same time, more impersonal; and the attitudes of millennials, alert to environmental and social issues, who don’t see workplaces as solid, dependable anymore – they’ve seen their parents struggle with insecurity, made redundant or move from post to post.

So we have a new situation where employees are willing to speak up, to resort to whistleblowing, when they don’t feel listened to by managers or HR. Understanding and managing relationships with unions and any other emerging groups of activists is an essential basis for moving forward with Employee Relations – which is why our acquisition of Marshall-James is so important for our work in coming years.

A specialist IR and ER consultancy set up and run by Andy Cook in 2006. For the past 13 years, Marshall-James has provided advice, guidance and services to some of the largest domestic and international employers in Industrial Relations and Employee Relations; including large scale change, recruitment, investigations and training.

Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP