A new kind of activism is on the rise. Employee activists are making their engagement with their employers visible beyond the office walls. The good news is that they can be an employer’s best supporters. The bad news is that they can also be its worst opponents
“Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism”, a global research project conducted by PR firm Weber Shandwick, reported that one in five employees (21 per cent) is a “ProActivist”, a positive, highly engaged, highly social employee activist. Meanwhile, 13 per cent were identified as “Detractors”, who took only negative actions against their employers. Four other groups were identified by the report – based on interviews with 2,300 employees from 15 countries – depending on their propensity for activism (see image).
The report also found that more than half of respondents – 56 per cent – have either defended their employer on social media or to family and friends.
Unrest in the global workforce is at the heart of the employee activism movement, says Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist. Yet many employees remain “unengaged and ill-informed about their employers’ goals and mission, and are often finding themselves in defensive mode on behalf of their employer”. Activists’ main weapon is social media and their arsenal consists of an array of social platforms – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – where they can quickly air likes and dislikes about their jobs, bosses and organisations.
Staff activism represents a significant movement that employers cannot afford to overlook, the study said. It found that one in two employees post messages, pictures or videos in social media frequently or from time to time. Gaines-Ross emphasises that “the opportunity and challenge is to embrace this new reality and understand what drives employees to be positive activists”.
Leadership has been found to be important in influencing employee activism. A mere 17 per cent of respondents gave a high rating to communications they receive from senior management, and only about four in 10 employees were able to describe with confidence what their employer is doing (42 per cent) and what its goals are (37 per cent).
Among well-known firms, PepsiCo, Dell, IBM and Zappos have been strong supporters of employee activism in varying ways and to varying degrees.
According to the report, the segment of activists that employers should prioritise is that of the ProActivists. The employees are usually a company’s ideal brand ambassadors and are quite possibly the most active posters on the company’s social media sites and intranet. Their activism extends offline to volunteering to support company causes and recommending friends for open positions.
Gaines-Ross explains that companies need to focus on levering and empowering ProActivists. “Employers can provide them with content, such as company news, to share externally,” she says. “Most importantly, they should maintain ProActivists’ high engagement level. Once lost, it’s tough to replace.”
Detractors, meanwhile, are the least engaged and the least likely to be a positive activist. They distrust their leaders and take negative action against their employers. Companies need to pinpoint these negative perceptions and turn them around. “At a very basic level, employers should ensure that their online monitoring tools are in place to flag behaviour that is in violation of its social policies,” Gaines-Ross says.
Overall, employers should ensure social media guidelines and policies are in place and are communicated clearly to the entire workforce. “For ProActivists, this is important given their eagerness to post about work. Detractors need to know that, if they choose to air their frustrations online, there are guidelines in place that they may be in violation of,” Gaines-Ross says.
Eliza Ng, director of HR at Fuji Xerox (Hong Kong), believes an engaged workforce is a direct link to employee activism. At company training sessions, and events such as the cosplay-themed annual dinner (where participants get to dress up as fictional characters), staff proactively post photos of enjoyable moments on social media. This helps enhance awareness and visibility of the company brand, as evidenced by the number of “likes” and positive comments received by the posts.
“Social media is an important channel for communicating with staff and clients nowadays,” Ng says. The latest news about Fuji Xerox’s CSR initiatives, staff-engagement events and updates on services and solutions are also shared on social platforms to foster a positive corporate image.
But even though most employees appreciate the flexibility for giving feedback afforded by social media, proper decorum in social media use is urged, she adds. “All our staff are required to take a social media e-learning course to learn the code of conduct for any activities performed in social media so as to maintain a professional image.”