Are you prepared for the rise of employee activism in the future of work?

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HR needs to identify and be sensitive to the purpose which drives employees, according to Anthony Longland, who explains that getting this wrong will lead to employee activism which organisations have only just begun to see

“Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. That we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness” – Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook.

This quote resonates because all employees, at some level, leave their homes for work each day, not simply to benefit in a transaction from which they earn wages, but to achieve something bigger.

Herbert Smith Freehills has undertaken some research and produced a thought-provoking report, which shines a light on that ‘something bigger’ in the workplaces of the future.

The future of work
We are now on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, where the products of the digital revolution are being developed and enhanced. Artificial intelligence, computer learning, robotics and automation have already begun transforming the world – and our workplaces – and no-one is predicting that transformation will cease, or even slow. The ‘internet of things’ will encroach further into our workplaces and our lives.

How these developments impact the outlook and behaviour of employees in these workplaces, is a crucial area of study for HR. The essential human characteristics have not changed quite so significantly as our workplaces.

The findings of the report speak to the growing desire of employees for purpose and meaning in their workplaces.

The rise of employee activism
Our survey warns of an unprecedented rise in workplace activism ahead, across all sectors and geographies.

We surveyed 375 C-suite executives in the US, the UK, Australia, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, expressly to elicit their thoughts on employee activism including the triggers and implications. 37 per cent of our respondents were managing workplaces of between 1,000 and 5,000 employees; 42 per cent managed workplaces with between 5,000 and 10,000 employees and the remainder workplaces with more than 10,000 employees.

“I recall a senior union official in the late 1980s observing to me, then a young law student, that ‘there is no problem in industrial relations which cannot be solved with a chequebook’”

Our survey respondents identified themselves exclusively as their organisations’ lead decision-maker on workplace issues or a member of the team who makes the organisation’s key decisions on workplace issues.

The results were surprising, in Australia some 85 per cent of respondents thought that workplace activism would significantly increase or slightly increase in the future. Less than 5 per cent thought there would be a decrease.

Employee activism triggers
So what are the triggers? This is where the results get rather interesting, particularly when they are contrasted by region.

My observation over three decades in the law, is that the predominant drivers of employee activism in Australia have been pay and conditions. Employment disputes in historically related to wages and conditions, and the exercise of managerial prerogative. I recall a senior union official in the late 1980s observing to me, then a young law student, that ‘there is no problem in industrial relations which cannot be solved with a chequebook’.

Yet our respondents identified the future triggers of workplace activism in the future somewhat differently. The top five triggers identified by the Australian respondents were automation and AI, diversity, surveillance, pay and benefits, and corporate strategy.

This seems to be a marked departure from our historical experience. When one considers the debate ahead of the May 2019 federal election, it was clear that the ALP’s key election message on industrial relations was wages. A key ALP campaign slogan was ‘everything’s going up except your wages’.

Again, our survey respondents pointed to something quite different. They identified that Corporate Social Responsibility would be one of the top five triggers of future activism in the US, the EU/UK, Asia (where it was the second-ranked trigger) and the Middle East and Africa. It is interesting that of all regions surveyed Australia is the only one where Corporate Social Responsibility was not identified as one of the top five future triggers. Although clearly it is related in a sense to both diversity and corporate strategy.

“Hundreds of workers at Microsoft protested the company’s work for the US immigration and customs enforcement when it became apparent that migrant children were being separated from their families on the US-Mexico border”

Employee activism in the US
The report relates the story of an American furniture manufacturing company called Wayfair. It records that in June 2019, a group of Wayfair employees objected to fulfilling an order for furniture for a detention centre on the US-Mexico border. Wayfair management messaged all of its employees, noting their concerns but saying that it was the company’s business ‘to sell to any customer that is acting within the laws of the countries in which we operate’.

An employee shared a screenshot of the message with a friend, who tweeted it. The tweet went viral and Wayfair employees grasped the initiative. An @wayfairwalkout Twitter account was set up within two hours, gaining more than 22,000 followers. A Facebook page publicised a planned protest rally, which was attended by hundreds and attracted media interest from around the world. Wayfair shares fell by 5 per cent on the same day.

This example resonates with our own experience of the power of social media. It is immediate, and has the potential to bring all manner of causes to the attention of vast numbers of people around the world.

Employee activism in Australia
An Australian example cited in the report concerns decisions of the Fair Work Commission in a case brought by Jeremy Lee, who was dismissed for refusing to provide his fingerprint for a new entry system used to check workers in and out of his employer’s worksite. Mr Lee argued that he should not be required to provide his fingerprint, on the grounds that the biometric data contained within was ‘sensitive data’ under the Privacy Act and therefore could only be collected with his consent.

“One of the frequently noted characteristics of the millennial generation is the wish to work for an employer whose values reflect their own”

The Commission found that the employer was not exempted from the Privacy Act because as the employee’s fingerprint data had not yet been collected, it could not already be held by the employer and hence the Act did not apply to it. The Commission found that the dismissal of Mr Lee for not providing the fingerprint data was unfair and he was awarded compensation.

Employee activism at Google and Microsoft
Another example concerns corporate strategy, identified as one of the top five triggers for employee activism of the future in Australia. It is the collective action of Google employees in 2018 against Project Maven, a contract with the US Pentagon that used AI to interpret camera footage gathered by drones. Some engineers refused to participate in building security tools connected with the project and others resigned. As a result of the pressure, Google announced that it would not renew its contract with the Pentagon.

Shortly afterwards, hundreds of workers at Microsoft protested the company’s work for the US immigration and customs enforcement when it became apparent that migrant children were being separated from their families on the US-Mexico border.

It is clear that in each of these examples, this activism goes well beyond compensation and even culture. As our report records, one of the frequently noted characteristics of the millennial generation is the wish to work for an employer whose values reflect their own.

What does this mean for HR?
The battle to recruit and retain talent; strategies to align employee aspirations with corporate objectives; the creation of internal processes to enable voice and harness employee ideas; processes which enable fair treatment and issue resolution. These are all the domain of HR. In many respects they are the hallmark of the value created by HR, since it was recognised as an independent discipline.

To a greater or lesser extent, each depends on identifying and being sensitive to the purpose which drives employees. Our survey responses suggest that getting it wrong will lead to an activism which we have only just begun to see. And getting that right will be critical for success in the workplace of the future.

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