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Employee activists - Today's pariahs, tomorrow's corporate leaders?
Why a changing world can offer hope for victimised workers
For too many of the problems we face today, the metrics that matter most – carbon emissions driving climate change, number of people in modern slavery, rate of biodiversity loss – are moving in the wrong direction.
Partially driven by the increasing urgency of making headway on these problems, society increasingly expects that the private sector must contribute to solutions.1 The news is dominated by stories of greenwashing, of weak commitments to net zero pledges, of the emptiness of vague statements committing to treat company stakeholders better. While frustrating, it’s easy to miss that the very fact that private companies feel obligated to expend so much time and energy portraying themselves as good corporate citizens is a pretty significant shift. Up until fairly recently, the dominant narrative has been that companies’ responsibilities begin and end with making a profit for their shareholders.
Arguably, then, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift – from one where companies are expected to play by the rules of the game and little more, to one where they are expected to make some contribution to achieving globally agreed goals like the Paris Agreement or the Sustainable Development Goals. Paradigm shmaradigm you might say, but society’s rules and behaviours all flow from the paradigm of how we collectively think the world should operate. According to acclaimed systems thinker Donella Meadows, changing mindsets or paradigms is the second most influential intervention that can be made in a complex system.
Of course, we are some way from that high-level shift being reflected in the every day behaviour of companies. The shift is being driven by demands from a range of stakeholders – consumers, investors, employees, politicians. But current executive teams’ mindsets and incentives remain aligned with the old paradigm. So while they will signal commitment to their new societal obligations of ethics and sustainability, they will resist as long as they possibly can.
That resistance includes retaliating against the stakeholders pressuring them, when they can get away with it. The customer is king, so they are safe enough. Shareholders have primacy, so they too are safe from direct retaliation (companies instead have been lobbying policymakers to reduce investor interference on sustainability or “ESG” issues).
Workers, however, have not been so lucky. Labour protections in many countries are extremely weak, and the extent to which such protections cover concerns that go beyond pay and conditions (such as those related to an employer’s climate strategy) is unclear. As a result, many pioneering employee activists at the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Kickstarter have experienced retaliation of one form or another – generally leading to them parting ways with their employer.
What will tomorrow bring?
It is for this reason that the decision to begin engaging in workplace advocacy needs to be taken with great care, with the knowledge that getting fired or otherwise forced out of a job is a real possibility (though approaching change in the right way can vastly diminish that risk).
Such advocacy seems a thankless task, for now. Will it always be that way?
Let’s fast forward 10 years. I believe that the new2 paradigm that companies have broad obligations to society is here to stay. We have a deadline of 2030 to achieve the SDGs and to halve global emissions. I believe we will miss those targets, but like a university student or newsletter writer prone to procrastination, we will start to get our act together as the deadline looms nearer. Massive incentive packages such as the U.S.’ Inflation Reduction Act will become widespread. Environmentally-damaging activities such as running coal plants or producing diesel cars will be phased out across much of the world.
In such a world, success in solving sustainability challenges will in many sectors be the determiner of the profitability and survival of companies. We’ll need a new generation of leaders at the top of these companies. Competition for such positions will be as tough as it ever has been. What will determine who gets picked?
I suggest that the employee activists of today will have positioned themselves well for top roles in the world of tomorrow. They will have demonstrated that they were ahead of the curve in identifying how companies needed to evolve. They will have built depth of knowledge of the challenges faced. They will have shown their passion in solving these issues is authentic. They will have taken risks. They will have won colleagues and others to their side. All of these are traits you want in leaders.
Those working directly on sustainability teams today will be particularly well-placed to lead. But command of social and environmental issues will be essential across the business, be it in HR, procurement, regulatory affairs or legal departments. So particularly for workers not in sustainability-themed jobs, demonstrating your passion on these issues today will truly set you apart from the crowd tomorrow.
If sustainability is in our future – and, for all of our sakes, it damn well better be – then those that champion it today may well lead us to it tomorrow.
There is much debate over what is the correct nature of the role businesses should play compared with governments. Society’s increasing expectations of business is partially a reflection of the failure of policymakers in adequately addressing some of our biggest challenges through regulation - a worrying trend. But even for those who would like the state to be playing a much larger role in tackling issues like climate change, they will likely agree that the private sector will still have to change significantly to adapt to global goals that governments adopt.