How to Drive Corporate Change through Activism

Nereida (Neddy) Perez
  Global Chief Diversity Officer, McCormick & Co

By Nereida (Neddy) Perez, Global Chief Diversity Officer, McCormick & Co

Corporations looking to attract and retain talent or customers need to learn how to leverage the power of “activism”. From time-to-time in history companies have found themselves on the receiving end of activists who have led boycotts, protests, labor strikes, et.al. However, in the last 10 to 15 years corporate leaders have found themselves having to become more vocal and take a stand on issues like the environment and Human Rights as a way of demonstrating to employees and customers that their company is living up to its core values and their commitment to drive positive change in the communities they serve.

Three-quarters (76%) of Millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work and nearly two-thirds (64%) won’t take a job if a potential employer doesn’t have strong social and environmental practices, according to the 2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study. According to the study 87% of consumers would be willing to buy a product or service based on a company’s advocacy concerning a social matter.

Employees and consumers today expect companies to not just speak about diversity and inclusion but also take a proactive stand on issues related to immigration, pay equity, human rights LGBTQ+ rights, human trafficking and forced child labor issues to name a few. Taking a position means that companies need to move from social giving to a state of proactively identifying their leaderships’ voice and communicate or create a call to action.

In 2018, the U.S. federal government implemented a travel ban policy that employees at several major technology companies mobilized and protested at airports while requesting their company leaders to take a stand. Several CEOs did speak up against the travel ban and new immigration policies. Some companies created legal aid funds to support employees effected and several CEOs withdrew from government advisory boards.

Much like the Civil Rights marches and Wall Street/global financial district sit-ins, employees and consumers are no longer content to watch things unfold they want to see leaders take a stand and they want to be part of the process to drive change.

This article is designed to help diversity and business leaders understand the forms of activism and how to build an internal activist community to drive corporate change with regards to diversity and social issues.

What Motivates Activists

There is an array of reasons why someone may become an activist. What seems to be true for activists is that they are motivated by doing good even if it means engaging in extreme behavior. “The spark for activism” can occur at any age, the need to be part change whether it is to drive it personally or be part of something that will improve society is critical. There are a few common factors that serve as drivers/motivators for individuals who become activists:

  • Exposed to some form of perceived/actual injustice
  • A desire to make things right or better for others
  • A personal need to take some type of action and not be a bystander
  • Moral conviction to fix a situation
  • The need to reconcile an ethical or moral issue related to humanity, the environment, an ecosystem system challenge.

Types of Activism

The main purpose of activism is to provoke people to ask questions and drive change. In a corporate environment, there must be clear and measurable results when leveraging activist tactics, often in the public realm activist have loosely defined objectives which can cause groups to fizzle out. All activists seek to: change a policy, implement a new practice or simply unmask and inform.

Types of Activists

Activism has traditionally focused on a call to action related to human rights, environmental or political causes as the approaches in the past, have ranged from letter writing campaigns, marches, to more extreme tactics. In today’s world, we have new types of activism as a result of new communications and technology platforms. Activism today includes:

  • Digital Activists
    Also, referred to as online activism,internet or web activism as well as e-activism. Online tools and resources are used to organize groups, launch digital campaigns, create electronic advocacy, cyber activism,e-campaigning, and use electronic communication technologies such as social media, particularly Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, e-mail, etc. to mobilize people.
  • Economic Activists
    Focus on bringing attention to economic conditions that impact people negatively. Tactics include encouraging people to not purchase particular products or stop patronage of certain organizations to cause that organization to lose money. In 2018,consumers boycotted Uber and within one day the president of the company resigned from a Whitehouse Business Council he served on. In the medical field, activists called for a boycott of Mylan’s EpiPenthe company which eventually had to offer an alternative to the high cost of the EpiPen.3 Recent marches like a “Day without an Immigrant” was intended to show the economic impact of what would happen if the U.S. immigrant population was reduced.
  • Environmental Activists
    Refers to protecting global natural resources from destruction or pollution, etc.Environmental activists in recent years have raised concerns on the use of ’Fracking’ which is used to extract oil from shale reserves and/or the construction of oil pipelines through protected Native American Lands.4Over the last 25 years, companies have setup and become actively involved in environmental sustainability. Based of the amount of studies and information showing that environmental protection is critical to their ability to do business, major companies like Ikea, New Belgium Brewing, Panasonic, Patagonia, Shell, Starbucks, Waste Zero, et.al. have become major advocates in championing policy and legislation designed to proactively protect the environment.
  • Hacktivists
    Is a very loose and decentralized group that operates on ideas rather than directives and can be quickly activated in to a call for action of any type. Anonymous is a loosely associated international network of activist and hacktivists that mobilizes on human rights issues.
  • Hashtagavists
    This term was coined by media outlets and refers to the use of Twitter’s hashtags being used to create a call for action of any type. Twitter users who inspire conversations and/or call for action on a broad range of topics are referred to as “Hashtagavists”. Normally, a hashtag group is formed as a result of a discussion or incident that has caused an outrage. #GivingTuesday, #BringBackOurGirls, and #BlackLivesMatter are examples of calls to action that not only created dialogue but resulted in funds raised and political change.
  • Political Activists
    A political activist is someone who is involved in the political process for the sake of promoting, impeding or raising awareness of a certain issue or set of issues. Political activism typically involves engagement beyond just voting, whether it be through protest, demonstration or lecture. Political activism can involve the mobilization of a group of like-minded people who believe in a particular cause that they believe can only be changed if the political process or policies in place are challenged.
  • Social/Humanitarian Activists
    This group is motivated by the preservation and protection of human rights and equality. Social activism seeks to eliminate inequality – hunger, homelessness, human trafficking, poverty, underemployment and poor education. The actions of companies to create equity of pay for women or partner with nonprofits to improve education or stop forced child labor is part social activism. Even the work of diversity and inclusion which strives to create equity falls under the space of social activism.

Build an Activist Community to Drive Corporate Culture Change

Employee activists like community groups want to drive broad social and environmental change to create a better community. However, corporate built activist programs need to have parameters that enable them to function in a constructive manner. As a leader, you will need to be prepared for some level of disruption due to the discussions that may transpire. (If your organization’s culture does not handle disruption well or the leadership is buttoned up and has a hard time with being challenged then stop reading now or proceed with extreme caution.)

  1. Identify the issue/cause or problem that you want to address
    This can be as simple as posing a question like “How can our company become more environmentally friendly?” or “What human rights/social issues do you feel the company should take a stand on?” or “How can we accelerate our diversity efforts to create a more inclusive workplace?” or is there a piece of legislation that needs to change at a state or national level.
  2. Establish the parameters and goals for the group
    You will need to be clear about the purpose of the group and what are the goals that they will be working to achieve. For instance, spelling out the kinds of behaviors that are acceptable vs nonacceptable (i.e. no place for name calling, destruction of property, etc.). Emphasize the company’s core values and intent to engage in fruitful action based dialogue. Also, define for the group what their mission is and what the goals are. If it is just conversation without a result the group is likely to become disinterested and fall apart. However, as long as the goal is broad enough and measurable the group will get more quickly engaged; (i.e. Find a solution to eliminate and bottle clean water in underserved communities by 2020 or increase the number of women in senior ranks in manufacturing by 2020 to 25%).
  3. Identify Potential Advocates
    You may want to initially identify a cross section of characteristics and group of employees to engage to kick off the conversation and test the waters of receptivity. Some potential characteristics include field of work years of service with the company, performance rating (high potentials or employees in good standing verses those on a performance improvement plan), as an example. The goal is to identify people that have previously expressed interest in the topic and can potentially serve as a champion or advocate.

    At this stage, you may want to turn to the employees who are members of your employee resource groups or other social communities that exist within the company because these individuals tend to be proactive. You will want to monitor the group for outliers those that are either very extreme or those that become disengaged. Their opinions and voices are important but you want to understand what is the opinion of the majority of the group.
  4. Educate the Group on the issue
    Provide resources and information about the topic or issue that the company is wanting to address. What are the past actions taken or external partnerships the company is engaged in. What have been the past successes or areas that the company fell short on. Transparency of information will be critical in building trust with the community of participants.
  5. Provide Opportunities for the Group to Volunteer
    Provide the group with an opportunity to become physically involved. Whether it is an opportunity to participate in a community service project or an environmental clean-up project creating an activity that brings the community you have created together. This gives them a chance to connect with like-minded people and further their bond. In addition, activities of physical interaction allows you to invite others to participate in the group. You will want to create activities that are fun for the group but also educational in nature. Use your personal talents to create your own, unique form of activism or ask the group to take a lead in developing activities that appeal to the group.

    Whatever opportunities you create they should aspire to educate, further enroll, develop a solution or take some type of action to support and address the challenge the company is facing.
  6. Track & Measure Impact
    Hosting activities and engaging in conversations is great. However, one major difference between corporate driven activism and other forms of activism is that results/impact needs to be tracked. Results are critical in a corporate environment because shareholders measure the impact and success of a company based on dividends paid and stock prices.

    Some the of the key performance indicators (KPIs) that can be tracked include, the number of positive media impressions, the number of people in attendance at events and the actual outcomes from the events held. These KPIs convert into measurable outcomes.

Examples of Opportunities to Mobilize Corporate Activists

Whether the focus is to attract talent, drive employee engagement or drive diversity and policy change, internally your employees represent a microcosm of your customers. Not proactively engaging them could impact the company’s ability to stay relevant. Here are some suggestions on engaging activists employees:

Internal Policies: (Human Resources and/or Labor Relations should be involved in discussions to ensure the company adhere to relevant laws.)

  • Tap business/employee resource groups in providing feedback on corporate culture changes (i.e. healthcare benefits, parental leave policies,etc.)
  • Identify a social or environmental issue the company needs to address host a hackathon/brainstorming session to obtain input on messaging or possible solutions.
  • Got to reduce operating costs but trying to save jobs? Mobilize the employees that will be impacted, brief them and get their input on costs savings recommendations and/or the process for downsizing?

External/LegislativeAdvocacy: (make sure to engage your government affairs team)

  • Invite employees to get involved in letter writing campaigns to congressional leaders to advocate for a piece of legislation.
  • Leverage company volunteer hours to allow employees to advocate for a change in legislation or policies the company is working on (i.e. banning forced child labor).
  • Host a townhall meeting with congressional leaders and provide an opportunity for employees to have their voices heard.
  • The company has been found responsible for violation of a major law and fined. Leverage employees to contribute ideas and recommendations on how to turn the situation around…make them part of the solution.
  • Engage Business/Employee Resource Groups with local community members to support major outreach efforts related to social causes or environment, healthcare, hunger, etc.

In conclusion, corporations can leverage the power of individuals who want to drive change to become internal activists and create a voice for the company in a constructive manner. By engaging employees this way, it will enhance company’s ability to attract and retain talent ;and new consumers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nereida (Neddy) Perez,
Global Chief Diversity Officer at McCormick & Company, Inc. Founder & Principal,D&I Creative Solutions, LLC and Neddy is an internationally known Human Capital and Culture Change practitioner with more than 24 years of corporate experience working with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies like UPS, Shell, Sodexo, KPMG, National Grid, Ingersoll Rand, TIAA, McCormick & Company. She has developed and implemented change management initiatives designed to remove organizational and cultural barriers to spur talent and business growth.

REFERENCES

Cone Communications, Millennial Employee Engagement Study, 2016 http://www.conecomm.com/research
What CEO Activism Looks Like in the Trump Era, by Leslie Gaines-Ross, October 2016, Harvard Business Review,https://hbr.org/2017/10/what-ceo-activism-looks-like-in-thetrump-era
Untangling the Mylan Epipen Controversy”, article by Dean Celia, Managed Healthcare, October 2016 https://www.managedhealthcareconnect.com/article/untangling-mylanepipen-controversy
South Dakota Pipeline Protest Laws Wories Native American Activists, by Ben Kenssele, U.S. News, October 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/south-dakotapipeline-protest-law-worries-native-american-activists-aclu-n989191
10 Twitter hashtags that have changed how we talk about social issues, Washington Post article by Tanya Sichynsky, March 21, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/03/21/these-are-the-10-most-influential-hashtags-in-honor-oftwitters-birthday/?utm_term=.62aafa2d053e
2015’s Top 5 Social Activism Sites by Adweek:http://www.adweek.com/digital/2015stop-5-social-activism-campaigns-blacklivesmatter-lovewins-more/
The Activist Academy: https://www.activisthive.org/category/activist-academy/
*Amherst College programs and resources for social activism:https://www.amherst.edu/campuslife/careers/amherst-careers-in/government-nonprofit/picareers/careers/social_activism