Climate activism: why not having an opinion is a risky choice

climate activism

Organisations that display real commitment and responsibility to societal issues are delivering a powerful message, demonstrating they’re here for the future. Particularly if the issue, such as climate change, will affect future generations, writes Aaron McEwan.

When corporate leaders such as Atlassian, Canva, Keep Cup, Amnesty International, and Koala agreed to let their employees skip work for the afternoon to take participate in climate activism, it sent a clear message. Social activism is on the agenda at home, when we’re out, and in the workplace for 2020.

In January, millions of Australian employees returned to work whilst an unprecedented ecological disaster was unfolding around them. Heatwaves, smoke-filled skies and catastrophic bush fires have made climate change deeply personal and catapulted the environment to the top of Australian voters’ concerns.

Before making any bold statements or actions on social or political issues, organisations must tread carefully to avoid short or long-term damage to the business.

An organisation’s views, comments, actions or silence on issues of such universal concern, can, and will, translate to employee action.

Climate activism is accepted as a growing social movement that leads directly to behavioural change in the workplace. Gartner research reveals that 67% of employees actively responded to a company action or statement on a social or political issue. Employees may apply to work for an organisation that shares their views or if they disagree with the action, consider quitting current employment at the organisation.

Millennial employees, in particular, expect their CEO to not only have an opinion, but to have an active position on key issues and a solid environmental track record. A massive 82% of millennials, who currently comprise 35% of the workforce and are the largest representative generation at work, responded to organisations taking a stance on a social or political issue.

Despite employees’ rising activism, their expectations remain largely unmet. Gartner research shows that 90% of employees cannot recall their company or CEO making an action or statement on a social or political issue.

Leaders must be prepared that in 2020 and years to come, organisations will need a clear position. If they choose not to take a stance on important issues, especially those significant to their workforce, they risk losing customers, partners, and employees.

Activism: what’s in it for the employer? 
Employees are driving change at their organisations from the bottom up, pressuring senior leaders to reverse actions that they find unethical. Workers today want more from their employers than job security and good benefits; they want to spur social action, feel a sense of purpose and make a positive impact on society.

Organisations that display real commitment and responsibility to societal issues are delivering a powerful message, demonstrating they’re here for the future. Particularly if the issue, such as climate change, will affect future generations.

In 2020, not having an opinion could be the riskiest choice of all. Gartner research reveals 66% of stakeholders responded positively to seeing a company make a statement on a social or political issue, and 67% responded positively to seeing a company take action on an issue

Employees will see an organisation with a clear and decisive position on climate activism as innovative and adaptive. Additionally, in terms of culture, it will be seen as one that offers a dynamic experience where individuals and companies can support issues together.

With this decade predicted to see increasing numbers of employees choosing to work for companies that have clear environmental creds or that are attached to industries recognised as social leaders, this serves as a great opportunity to attract and retain top talent in the market.

The cherry on top for organisations that choose to publicly align with a stance on a political or societal issue is that they will appeal to new customers who seek like-minded partners and strengthen existing customer relationships.

How to take action
Any strong stance on a social or political issue can polarise a population, whether that be shareholders, customers, or employees. Before making any bold statements or actions on social or political issues, organisations must tread carefully to avoid short or long-term damage to the business.

Keeping the following tips in mind will help to mitigate risk while creating a foundational strategy for addressing social and political issues as an organisation.

Create a societal issue response committee
The best way to lead is by example and through support. Establishing an advisory board to consider and respond to emerging social and political issues will streamline the external and internal communication process, and ensure leaders are informed of contentious issues. The board accepts an advisory role and will develop a framework to assess the necessary response: no action, take action, escalate the action to the CEO.

Employees may apply to work for an organisation that shares their views or if they disagree with the action, consider quitting current employment at the organisation.

Within this framework will sit a communications foundation that identifies when an organisation needs to speak to employees or senior team leaders on an issue, and when external communications should take place.

Find the recurring issues
Determine what issues warrant a response from the organisation by looking at the organisation’s historical involvement in climate activism, or other societal issues, and what’s currently causing unrest or controversy. An overview like this will allow leaders to clearly identify recurring/common issues and take action.

Any response is better than no response
In 2020, not having an opinion could be the riskiest choice of all. Gartner research reveals 66% of stakeholders responded positively to seeing a company make a statement on a social or political issue, and 67% responded positively to seeing a company take action on an issue. In addition, messaging on social or political issues originating from the company prompts an almost identical positive response rate as when it comes directly from the CEO.

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