The Rise in Employee Activism

By Zoe Cunningham
Posted on 15 May 2019

A mass employee walk out is a last resort that indicates an endemic ‘us and them’ attitude fundamentally at odds with both employee expectations and good management. Attracting and retaining the good people with great skills essential to business success requires a strategic commitment to people management that is a world away from the hierarchical approach of the past. Zoe Cunningham, CEO, Softwire, explains the importance of nurturing employees, respecting their beliefs and actively seeking their input into tough business decisions.

Last Resort

The speed with which an apparently five star employer can lose employee credibility appears astonishing. How quickly the atmosphere within certain Silicon Valley firms has changed from a top rated employment destination to a workplace so toxic that employees feel compelled to stage a mass walk out. But is this really the case? Employee activism on this scale is a last resort, a desperate recognition that long standing internal efforts to effect change have failed.

For any employer the concept of activism is disconcerting. What does it say about a business that employees are so unhappy they want to make these very public statements?

This very public questioning of employers – from Google to Riot Games – about both ethics and commitment to creating a safe working environment, suggests a systemic lack of employee engagement. It indicates an ‘us and them’ divide between employer and employee that is out of step with both employee expectations and good employment practice.

Employee Value

Just consider the value of these employees: these intelligent, highly sought after experts with the world at their feet. They could work anywhere; join any business; find a company that not only rewards their skills but respects their opinions and beliefs.  And there is no doubt that many will have already done just that – rather than take a public stand they will have moved elsewhere.

With tech talent incredibly thin on the ground – in the UK as elsewhere globally – retaining top talent must be so much more than a line in the corporate strategy. As many companies are discovering, forget the salary and the perks. A lack of commitment to creating the right working environment and nurturing talent leads to employee haemorrhage which is actively hindering performance and growth.

Valuable individuals with hard to source skills are no longer just employees; they are part of the business. And, as such, they need not only to be kept informed about business change – and business challenges – but their opinions and ideas actively sought.  In practice this means including employees in the big decisions. It means sharing business troubles as well as celebrating success. It may go against the grain for managers raised in traditionally hierarchical business models but asking employee opinions on tough decisions – to choose between a 10% pay cut or a number of redundancies, for example – doesn’t undermine morale. It actually improves trust. It enhances their commitment to the business.

This open approach needs to be embedded within the entire business. An open door (or open diary for those without offices!) policy or dedicated times when employees are encouraged to speak to senior management, both in informal group environments and one to one, are invaluable. This is not just about providing a safe space for raising concerns and complaints – although that is of course essential.  It is about celebrating success, requesting new office facilities, prompting debate and discussion about dealing with clients, managing remote teams or embracing new market opportunities. Essentially, it is about fostering an open business environment that is a world away from the ‘us and them’ hierarchy of the past.

Conclusion

Employee walk outs make a very significant statement about the quality of experience within specific organisations. But in many companies the activism is subtle – it is the gentle drip of talent leaving, the constant cycle of recruitment and replacement.

People management takes time; but retaining and developing a committed and talented team is crucial to success. Companies cannot just pay lip service in a bid to attract highly valued tech talent. By actively engaging and empowering individuals to speak up and make changes to processes and values, companies can build the committed and engaged talent pool required to underpin long term success.