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Tina Casey headshot

Should Employers Prepare For a Summer of Protests?

By Tina Casey
pro-palestine protests at the university of north carolina chapel hill in may 2024

Student protestors gather outside the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on May 3, three days after campus administration sent police in to break up a prior protest encampment. (Image: Jillian Kern/Flickr) 

Summer jobs and student internships have been rites of passage for generations. But this summer could pose unique challenges for employers as some analysts anticipate the string of protests at colleges and universities will spread to office buildings and corporate campuses. 

Google insists on a protest-free zone

The events of October 7, 2023, in Israel and the aftermath in Gaza have been widely reported, as have the protests on college and university campuses in the U.S. The protests resulted in more than 2,200 arrests across at least 40 locations since April 18 alone, according to news reports. 

Due to the number of campuses involved, it is reasonable to assume that many summer job seekers, interns, and graduates in search of permanent employment have been exposed to organized protests as well as individual actions at their schools and elsewhere. Depending on the school’s public or private status, many of these students are also accustomed to an environment in which the right to protest is protected, respected, and supported by their peers and teachers.

Of course, the First Amendment does not apply to private workplaces, though labor laws may afford some redress against retaliation. That fact was on full display last month when dozens of Google employees were fired shortly after participating in two sit-in protests at the company's offices on April 16. 

C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the trade association SHRM (formerly the Society for Human Resource Management), told CNN he expects further workplace protests to be limited, “because of how swiftly and unapologetically Google addressed it."

That viewpoint is consistent with a staff memo attributed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. As cited by CNN on May 1, the memo urged “staffers to keep ‘politics’ out of the workplace.”

“Pichai told workers that ‘this is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts coworkers.’ Pichai went on to urge Googlers to not ‘fight over disruptive issues or debate politics’ in the workplace,” CNN reported.

Warning signs for Pride Month

Even if simplistic exhortations about workplace behavior are effective within the office walls, outside activity is a gray area. Business leaders will need to be mindful as the U.S. marks LGBTQ+ Pride Month in June as the display of national flags and symbols at Pride events is already a matter of contention going back years.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict — ostensibly not about LGBTQ issues and thousands of miles from the U.S. — has become a potent flashpoint within the queer community,” NBC reporter Avichai Scher observed back in 2019 amidst tensions around the Israeli flag being displayed at some Pride events.

Though other observers have drawn a more direct overlay with LGBTQ+ issues, a look back at Scher’s reporting mirrors the complicated landscape of Pride Month 2024.

When workers organize to protest issues such as climate change, sexual harassment or the treatment of migrant children, circumstances of personal identity and national heritage are not generally the focus of attention. In the current protests, personal identity and national heritage are entirely front and center.

To further complicate matters, Pride Month has also become the focus of right-wing attacks, a phenomenon linked to the failed insurrection of January 6, 2021, and supported by a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in many U.S. states. Signs of another layer of risk appeared last week when a Black female student protestor at the University of Mississippi suffered racially charged taunts from a large crowd of counter-protestors that was mostly white and male. U.S. flags and flags supporting former President Donald Trump were on display.

In another widely reported incident, a protest group on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, was physically attacked in the early morning hours of April 30. As of this writing, the instigators of that attack are unidentified.  

In addition, reports of harassment and unsafe environments on campuses have raised concerns over personal safety for many students, regardless of whether or not they are part of an organized protest. 

Communication is the key

Against this backdrop of contention on campuses across the U.S., employers need to communicate with their employees about the potential for Pride Month activities to be disrupted by hate speech, harassing behavior or outright violence.

The risk management organization United Educators provides guidance for campus administrators that can also be helpful for businesses: “Activism-fueled demonstrations by campus community members at colleges and universities are a perennial risk,” the organization notes in an online guidance. It advises taking common sense steps, such as making sure that policies are communicated clearly and in detail.

The organization also suggests that response plans should be rehearsed in coordination with other stakeholders. In terms of businesses, that would include employee groups as well as a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) officer or other personnel liaison, in addition to security and communications personnel.

The importance of situational awareness

Employers also need to find a space for communicating with their employees about risk at public events, rather than focusing solely on expectations for their personal behavior.

Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, shared his experienced perspective with Ayesha Rascoe of National Public Radio last week. Noguera was among the leaders of the 1980s anti-apartheid activist movement while student body president at the University of California, Berkeley.

In particular, he said the movement to push universities to divest from South Africa was successful because it was nonviolent and leaned into educating students and faculty about the apartheid system. "We did a lot of education work, we did teach ins, and that really helped because many people didn't understand South Africa, didn't understand what divestment was about," Noguera said. "[University administration] weren't happy about what we were doing, but we tried to assure them that this was not about destroying the university or tearing it down. This was about making the point politically."

Though accusations regarding the involvement of “outside agitators” have been a feature of protest movements for generations, Noguera cautioned today’s protestors to be vigilant about protecting the integrity and mission of their movement.
 
“My advice [to protestors] is always be careful about who you're out there with," he said. "There are elements out there who are agitators, who are provocative. You got to really be careful because they will divert the message to be the destruction of property and violence, away from the focus of the protest."

In the end, there is only so much preparing and guidance can accomplish, and employers may have to view the way they navigate emerging protests through the lens of a learning experience. The lesson taught by Google — that a business leader’s job begins and ends at the office door — is clearly out of date.  

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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