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Activism at Work: Let Us Count the Ways


Originally published as The Big Story in the Brands Taking Stands weekly newsletter; click here to sign up.

Since its beginning just over one year ago, I’ve argued in this newsletter that the private sector is the best hope for systemic social change in a time when most other institutions do not seem up to the task. Corporate activism is increasing due to governmental dysfunction and institutional ineptitude and paralysis. Employee activism is on the rise, buoyed by heated rhetoric about social movements and hot-button political issues.

In the brands taking stands department, the bigger picture is being addressed because companies realize that adopting sustainable practices internally only goes so far. Without corresponding changes within the larger society, the effectiveness of many corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability practices is limited. And social restlessness is showing up in the workplace, as a younger workforce insists that companies tackle such issues as racism, gender equity and LGBTQ rights as “business as usual.”

This is new territory for business, and it’s no wonder that many previously unasked questions arise. Thankfully, thoughtful researchers are hard at work asking the right questions and offering some possible answers.

The basic issues for companies are outlined in a recent blog by Joss Tantram, a founding partner of Terrafiniti, a U.K. sustainability consultancy: “Just what are the expectations, limitations and challenges which companies should consider when undertaking activism?” Tantram proposes “common self-interest” as the best guide in navigating this uncharted territory. He defines nine points of measurement, from focus and brand cohesion to societal capacity. He points complex questions—such as “does the project/activity focus upon a common problem or systems-level challenge that is preventing/slowing the move toward a sustainable, equitable economy?”—to concise, specific targets, such as “creating enabling conditions.”

In conclusion, Tantram comes down in favor of corporate activism: “If we are truly interested in encouraging and supporting companies to play a role in developing a sustainable world, then we should also be interested in those which undertake activism to address or respond to clear social and ecological challenges.”

What does this new world of corporate activism look like for employees? Jim Starr, president and chief executive officer for America’s Charities, spells out the details in a recent blog for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

“There are certainly many levels and degrees to which employers can step up and address employees’ growing demands for companies to take stands on important issues. The good news is many companies are already well-positioned to provide their employees an outlet for their activism in a way that also aligns with the company’s core values.”

Starr describes six CSR program elements to engage with and support employee activism. They range from matching employee giving to providing resource groups. Another key is leadership buy-in, without which programs are likely to fail. He cautions that “employee engagement and workplace giving programs must be embedded in a company’s culture, values and actions,” not just bolt-on, feel-good initiatives.

Starr acknowledges that “the rise of employee activism presents new challenges for companies in striking the right balance between engaging their employees in issues that matter to them, staying true to their corporate mission and values, and being a force for social good.” But he concludes that meeting these challenges successfully is integral to the purpose of business today. A company’s value is now being measured in part by its ability to provide a platform for its employees to address the social causes that matter to them, as well as by its profitability.

I think it’s clear that values are now a part of valuation in the new world of business activism.

Be sure to stay informed about the latest in corporate responsibility and corporate activism with the Brands Taking Stands newsletter. And follow us on Twitter @BrandsTkgStands.

Image: AdobeStock/EtiAmmos