Responding to Employee Activism

IRI Podcast episode on responding to employee activism

In recent years, employers have seen an unprecedented surge in employee activism, making it a critical topic for HR and corporate leadership. How should organizations respond to this surge – and what should a leader’s response be to employee activism on-the-job? Today, Jennifer talks with Arlene Hirsch, a career and psychological counselor and author of a recent article for SHRM titled “When and How Employers Should Respond to Employee Activism”. Here, she explains:

  • The concerns and opportunities posed to employers by employee activism;
  • How to prevent polarization in the workplace;
  • The best ways for employers to respond to activism on-the-job; and
  • The importance of creating a balance that supports company values while uplifting employees and respecting their opinions and freedoms!

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Employee Activism

  • Any action that employees take to affect social change or to change the employee power dynamic within a company can be considered employee activism.
    • This can include employees wearing a certain kind of apparel, supporting a cause at work, or even putting pressure on the company to take a stand on a certain issue.
  • Every generation has and does bring employee activism into the workplace, but some of the younger generations may bring more energy and passion.
    • And some younger people are putting pressure on older generations, and people in power, to take a stance on social justice issues.


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Concerns of Employee Activism

  • One of the dangers of employee activism is when employees are publicly protesting company policies, and this can bring reputational damage to the company.
  • It’s also important to be mindful when responding to employee activism, because employees may protest a certain issue that the company disagrees with. By putting some policies in place to negate these protests, ultimately the employee is representing themselves.

Opportunities in Employee Activism

  • There are opportunities in responding to employee activism when they are in line with the company’s values
    • It can reinforce the values of the company, and demonstrate a stronger commitment with the employees. 

Choosing Battles

  • When responding to employee activism, it is important to take a thoughtful approach, considering the impact of the issue and how the issue aligns with company values.
  • In some cases, companies may encourage their employees to go out and protest, giving employees time off, divesting company stocks from issues they do not agree with, and this corporate action can really resonate with employees. 
  • The most important thing that companies need to do when responding to employee activism, and when these social justice issues come up, is putting meaning behind the words.
    • An example of this is not only making a statement, saying a company supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but thoughtfully supporting DEI initiatives, putting money towards the cause, and shaking up the corporate structure to accommodate these issues.
    • Some companies that may be concerned about public scrutiny and backlash for speaking out about these issues can first look internally to see how they can solve the issue, before making it public, so that way the best message gets out. 

Preventing Polarization in the Workplace

  • Some companies prohibit their employees from speaking about political issues at work, however, this does not work in all cases. 
    • Encouraging employees to refrain from speaking about their personal politics can at least limit the amount of polarization within a company. 
    • The stance that companies take on this issue depends on the culture of the company, and there is no one-size-fits-all for implementing these kinds of policies.
  • Some companies can limit the amount of overt polarization by having rules against slogans on apparel, or preventing employees from wearing company gear if they choose to publicly protest. 
    • This logic can also apply to social media, preventing employees from sharing where they work when posting, or expressing that they are not representing the views of the organization.

Responding to Employee Activism

  • When responding to employee activism, it is important for companies to be consistent with their enforcement of policies.
    • If companies do not have any kind of policies in place, it is an invitation for noncompliance, and companies should have some policies in place.
  • HR departments play a role throughout the lifecycle of an employee experience, and HR can take action responding to where employees stand on issues before it gets out of hand.
    • It is important for HR employees to make senior leaders aware of the issues that employees care about, and they can play a key role in how the company responds to employee activism.
    • HR can also work with the company’s legal advisors when putting policies into place, making sure the company is being fair and following the law.

Employee Activism Outside the Workplace

  • Some states have implemented laws on the action that companies can take when protesting happens outside of the workplace.
    • If a company is considering their own policies, and repercussions, it is important to make sure it is consistent with local laws.
  • Additionally, it is important for companies to reflect on the perception of their policies, and how it might impact their organization and how it is viewed by the outside world.
  • It is vitally important that there is transparency between the company and it’s employees when it comes to social issues, and that there is a mutual understanding on policies. 
  • When companies implement policies that prohibit any kind of protest, it can be very damaging to the culture of the company, and prevents employees from being authentic in the workplace. 
    • It’s important to create a balance that supports company values, while also uplifting employees and respecting their personal opinions and freedoms.  

Arlene Hirsch Background

  • M.A., Counseling Psychology from Northwestern University
  • BA in English, Secondary Education from the University of Iowa
  • She’s worked as a Senior Lecturer at Northwestern University, teaching Career Counseling Theory and Practice to graduate students in the Counseling Psychology program
  • She has served as a Career and Psychological Counselor in Chicago for the almost 40 years, providing a range of individual career counseling and psychotherapy, vocational forensics, and job search coaching.



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