© Tobias Tanzya

Employee activism – a topic for strategic communication?

Lesezeit: 3 Minuten

In July 2023, the Research Dialogue 2023 was hosted by the University of Vienna. Professor Sabine Einwiller and her team presented the latest scientific research on employee communications with insights on trends, CEO activism, appreciation, and virtual collaboration.

We have summarized the presentation of Neda Ninova-Solovykh, University of Vienna, on activism of employees as a topic for strategic communication.

Employee activism

In recent years, employees, especially in the U.S., have become particularly active when perceiving misconduct of their company in social and environmental issues. On various occasions, they have staged walkouts and protests, written open letters, and, most importantly, instrumentalized social media to agitate for change. This phenomenon is termed employee activism and has been described as employees engaged in coordinated action to address a societal problem connected to their company.

Journalists and consultants are increasingly interested in the topic and so are communication scholars. Employee activism is currently also one of the main research fields of the Corporate Communication Research Group at the University of Vienna. During the Research Dialogue 2023, Neda Ninova-Solovykh, doctoral assistant, gave an overview of the team’s latest research findings.

Current manifestations and strategic relevance

When employees perceive some form of organizational misbehavior and set out to do something against it, they can take measures internally and/or externally. As practice shows, employees often choose to speak out:

  • Employees increasingly engage in corrective behaviors, so far typical for outsider activists.
  • As a collective expression of principled dissent with organizational practices on relevant social issues, employee activism represents a new form of employee-led opposition and participation in corporate affairs.
  • Employee activism has much to do with communication which produces (public) pressure and confrontation; hence, it also brings employees’ role as organizational communicators to a new level.
  • Employee activism entails new opportunities and risks that strongly depend on the organizational reaction in terms of management responsiveness and communication adequacy.
Neda Ninova-Solovykh, Universität Wien

To address the growing importance of employee activism, in April this year, an online survey was carried out among 530 people working for private American companies with more than 500 employees. Putting study participants in a hypothetical situation, in which their company is getting sued in federal court for mishandling sexual harassment complaints (one of the issues that have motivated numerous employees for activism in the last couple of years), showed high readiness for employee activism on the matter. 

Internally, employees were particularly willing to engage in working groups to develop and propose solutions, sign a protest petition, and participate in polls and educational events initiated by employees. They were also ready to post a joint statement on the intranet and join a direct confrontation with the management, but on average the likelihood of these actions was lower. 

Externally, employees demonstrated a high willingness to provide problem-related information to NGOs, sign an open letter, and collaborate with employees from other companies. Their intentions to participate in a walkout or protest and to use social media were on average slightly weaker, but still considerable. Many of the respondents, however, were not enthusiastic about taking part in an unsanctioned press conference to inform the media about the situation. 

Men, employees with management responsibilities, and people who have experienced workplace sexual harassment in some form already were more likely to become activists. 

Drivers of employee activism

Study results further revealed that employee activism intentions were strongly correlated with employees’ communication activeness, i.e., their willingness to exchange information about the issue with colleagues and people outside the company. In the specific situation of alleged corporate misconduct, also employees’ perceived problem recognition, freedom of action, and involvement as well as their negative emotions were recognized as important drivers of employee activism. Based on these findings, companies now have a good starting point for identifying those employees who have a high potential of becoming activists in a similar situation. 

Furthermore, the study highlighted the significant importance of internal communication for employee activism. Surprisingly or not, employees who perceived the general communication climate in their company as open, dialogue-oriented, and respectful were more likely to engage in communication and collective problem-solving actions, both internally and externally. Hence, it is becoming apparent that employee activism is also a matter of organizational strategic communication.