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THE RISE OF WORKPLACE ACTIVISM

© IKON
© IKON

06 January 2020 Herpreet Kaur Grewal


This month we investigate how organisations should deal with workforce campaigns for change.


More than 80 per cent of organisations expect a rise in workforce activism in the next three to five years, with one in three senior executives listing workforce activism as one of the top three risks to their organisation’s reputation.

The Future of Work study by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills found that fears about automation replacing human workers will be a key trigger for such activism, followed by pay and benefits, and environmental concerns.

Activism could manifest in social media groups, digital petitions and a collective approach to whistle-blowing. Many will organise through tech platforms and commit to a range of causes. Recent corporate response to single-use plastics in the workplace is in no small way the result of employee activism, and wider issues of social change are of more importance to the shifting workplace demographic.

The report suggests it’s likely that agency and contract workers will be involved as well as direct employees. So this month we asked: how should organisations deal with workforce campaigns for change? What’s the overlap with HR? And how do you stay on top of problems so workers don’t feel the need to band together and demand solutions?


David Sharp

Activism is here to stay

There has been a seismic shift in the way we relate to the institutions that shape our lives. That goes wider than the workplace: it applies to how we view government, and the way children seek to exercise their rights at school. Trust in authorities has become diluted, and the command-and-control model is dying, if not dead. What we perceive as activism is here to stay.

At work, the employment relationship has also changed: gig economy worker numbers have doubled in the UK in the last three years. While employees’ beliefs might once have been a matter only for themselves – and the job of the employer was merely to ensure they didn’t breach the statutory rights of others – organisations can no longer afford to ignore worker activism.

Activism can be a positive force where the values of employee and organisation are aligned, which makes effective recruitment and a listening ear important. That requires HR to be embedded firmly in corporate strategy, so it’s not a sticking plaster.

I can understand why employers might want a policy on workplace activism. But if it’s primary aim is to impose control over people’s hearts and minds to ‘protect’ the employer, it may well be too little too late. 


David Sharp is managing director at International Workplace



Andrew Hulbert

Young workers drive Activism

 I anticipate seeing a rise in workplace activism. It’s linked to the younger demographic entering the workforce. Generation Z has purpose, they want organisations to be a cause for good. And they’re not afraid to voice that concern. 

The other key facet is this workforce anticipates staying in roles for a short period so they aren’t concerned about the disruption affecting their future work prospects. If the business will not make the changes they are asking for, they will judge that the organisation does not represent their values and will look to move on.

The ability to find like-minded individuals on social media gives people a meaning and a voice. Organisations are concerned about the reputation damage that can be caused from this type of campaign. Whether that’s physically protesting outside of the office or creating a hate campaign online, it is easy for organisations to find themselves on the wrong end of a viral trend. I think we’ll see organisations giving in to activism to some degree for fear of this type of reputational damage.


Andrew Hulbert is managing director at Pareto FM 



Kellie Lord-Thomas

Monitor your impact

Workforce activism is not, inherently, 

a negative movement; if managed appropriately it can lead to positive change. 

Lobbying for better working conditions has always been present at Amnesty. Half of our staff are members of Unite, and HR works closely with the union when setting pay scales, staff benefits and policies for whistle-blowing and transparency. 

Managing activism successfully can and has led to changes such as improved wellbeing services. Our staff care passionately about who we work with, so it’s critical that our procurement procedures reflect those values. For example, we run ethical due diligence on suppliers, we don’t work with companies who operate zero-hours contracts, we pay the LLW, we don’t use products with palm oil and we use fair trade products.

We don’t always get it right; we were slow to recognise the need for gender-neutral toilets despite externally campaigning on gender and identity for many years. But this is a process of continuous improvement and workforce activism plays an active role in that. 


Whilst workforce activism can lead to positive change, it can sometimes blur the lines between professional and unprofessional behaviour. Senior management teams need to actively listen to their workforce and work together for joined-up solutions.’


Kellie Lord-Thomas, UK workplace manager at Amnesty International



Shumon Choudhury 

Give employees a platform 

 Providing a platform for employees to voice their concerns is essential to organisational harmony while also safeguarding a business’s reputation.

Whether it is a regular HR drop-in session, online polls, or organising a talk from a subject matter expert, being proactive is vital in building trust.

Given the importance of social media, it is a necessary tool in modern communication and campaigning; therefore, an HR team has to understand how to maximise employee engagement.

Employees expect their employers to care more about broader issues rather than just their profitability. If an employer can demonstrate this sufficiently, it could result in a higher level of employee retention and an overall increase in productivity.

At Lendlease Europe, we are very forward-thinking and have various initiatives that help us engage with each other without fear of punishment or judgement.


Shumon Choudhury is residential property manager at Lendlease Europe


Ian Jones

Keep communication channels open

Activism tends to be prevalent when people don’t feel they are being listened to. 


I like to think ITV is at the leading edge of employee engagement and social purpose – to the point where ‘activism’ isn’t really something that happens – if someone has something to say, they say it, and it’s discussed openly. 

We have a system of ‘ambassadors’ that are employee representatives embedded in their departments and they have a constituency of about 50 people each. Anything – and I really mean anything – can be raised in regular ambassador meetings that are held as a group with senior executive management. 

We have several groups such as ITV Pride, Able, Women, LGBTQ and Wellbeing and others where, again, the conversation is open, honest and direct. We are a unionised organisation and the unions are included and consulted whenever the company has information it needs to get out to the wider membership. 

The CEO has a fortnightly podcast or videocast and has just completed 22 ‘roadshow’ meetings with staff right across the organisation to explain the new company strategy and to explain what’s happening in the business. And she has an ‘Ask Carolyn’ inbox address for anyone to be able to write directly to her – and they do. 


Ian Jones is director of workplace services and estates at ITV