Welcome to the age of employee activism

Andy Cook on how HR can achieve a new kind of equilibrium between employer and employees.

Reading time: 4 minutes

This decade is going to be an age of employee activism. In the last year we’ve seen signals of what’s coming: protests by Amazon staff (forcing the company to accelerate its action on becoming carbon neutral); Wayfair employees downing tools over links to US border detention centres; and Google staff walking out over a lack of response to sexual harassment allegations.

Individuals have also been able to make a big noise via social media – including the sacked member of staff at Asda, whose Tweets went viral.

In this new context, employers need joined-up Industrial Relations (IR) and Employee Relations (ER) expertise. The alternative is a negative spiral for organisations.

The best HR services will allow for IR and ER to collaborate

In a survey in November 2019, board members and senior management suggested that employee activism over the coming five years would cost them a 25% reduction in revenues. 95% expected a rise in the number of employees using social media such as Twitter to raise complaints and concerns about their company.

Activism is the result of a combination of factors: the ability to reach large audiences instantly via social media; the way in which organisations have become increasingly more slick and efficient over the past 30 years, but, at the same time, more impersonal; and the attitudes of millennials, alert to environmental and social issues, who don’t see workplaces as solid, dependable anymore – they’ve seen their parents struggle with insecurity, made redundant or move from post to post.

So we have a new situation where employees are willing to speak up, to resort to whistleblowing, when they don’t feel listened to by managers or HR.

Understanding and managing relationships with unions (more than a quarter of UK employees are union members) and the other emerging groups of activists (informal groups coming together around environmental and social issues) is an essential basis for moving forward with Employee Relations. 

The best HR services will allow for IR and ER to collaborate, to be a joined-up part of the organisation’s ‘people and culture’ operations – not separated as hard line management for IR and a softer face for ER. And that means equipping teams with the right mix of skills.

In the new world of activism this needs to be accompanied by a culture of Conversational Intelligence

If they’re working in a traditionally unionised sector then there’ll be a team of people working with unions on IR, but that also means ER can be overshadowed.

Efforts to improve the workplace environment, openness, trust, the whole culture of good conversations, are left stunted.

On the other hand, where there’s little expectation of industrial action, there’s no expertise in IR, just the focus on ER, leading to the risk of a single dispute that can undo all the previous work.

Engaging with unions in positive, constructive ways is an essential part of modern workplace relations – and a process that involves an understanding of relevant legislation and best practice.

In the new world of activism this needs to be accompanied by a culture of Conversational Intelligence (CI).

CI is about being equipped to have conversations in which we don’t make assumptions. We are curious about different views, experiences, approaches.



It’s when we listen in a reflective way and are conscious of the need to empathise with views that might be different from our own.

Critically, having CI means being able to create a sense of safety, so that employees feel able to be entirely open rather than giving expected answers, following the path of least resistance.

Conversation skills are expected as a given among staff in a professional setting. But in reality the skills involved with managing difficult situations, in dealing with conflict, differences in personality etc, are in short supply.

Developing CI is needed to build an awareness of the role of conversations in relationships, how the quality of conversations changes dynamics, and the huge influence they have on the outcome of situations, particularly those most difficult of conversations where we’re most likely to want to rush to the easiest conclusions.

Core skills for CI include ‘situational awareness’, the essential practice of ‘curiosity’, ‘reflective listening’, ‘empathy’, and ‘self-awareness’ – so not just listening outwardly but inwardly, how your own ‘inner state’ is impacting on the flow of the conversation.

The purpose of this package of expertise for HR and their organisations is not to ‘fight’ disruption and quash resistance from activism, but making a bridge to achieving a new kind of equilibrium of mutual understanding and appreciation between employer and employees.


About the author

Andy Cook is founding director of Marshall-James and expert industrial relations adviser for CMP



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