Managing Employee Activism

Posted on May 24, 2024 in Communication,Conflict Resolution,Workplace Behaviours . 0 Comments.

There used to be a time in Australian workplaces, in the not-too-distant past, when it was an accepted understanding that you did NOT talk about money, politics, or religion or even any alternative codes of football. Remember the leave “your personal life at the door” days?

Things have changed. The line between personal life and work life has blurred and at times appears to have entirely dissolved. Keeping a private persona separate from a professional one is more difficult and for many not even a relevant aspiration. Employee activism is likely to continue increasing as the desire to live our individual values and express social and political identities at work increases. Organisations strive to have personalities that consumers, clients and employees connect with, requiring personified popular opinions. More employees expect to be able to speak up about broader societal, environmental and political issues and expect their employer to take a stand.

In Australia, organisational statements and support for issues such as the same-sex marriage plebiscite, the Voice referendum and open statements on wars and global conflicts have contributed to the changing landscape of employee activism.

Whole self to work and ensuring everyone’s comfort

One of the trends impacting the workplace dynamic is free expression of more overt emotions, encouraged by our modern society.

The “bring your whole self to work” mantra is well intended as a way of increasing contribution and innovation through comfort levels – be yourself and be accepted and celebrated for who you and your colleagues truly are. But this is not an absolute nor is it a right. In the workplace there is also a need to balance the individual expression with the impact on others. So what we actually mean is bring everything to work that allows you to contribute effectively to a professional workplace whilst fulfilling the goals of the organisation. In effect “bring much of yourself to work” within limits and be cognisant that your light does not dim that of others.

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Activism comes in all shapes and sizes

Employee passions vary and at times make up the colourful nature of our workplaces. The tension rises when one person’s passion makes others feel uncomfortable. Just because it is something you feel passionately about doesn’t mean it has a place in the workplace.

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Raw milk can leave a sour taste

A few years ago I was engaged to resolve a conflict in a PR firm. It turned out that one team member was passionate about Raw Milk. FYI in Australia, the sale of raw cow’s milk for human consumption is illegal. In Victoria, it is also illegal to package, deliver or provide raw milk for consumption. If you want to know more about the topic head here.

This team member would talk to people about it in the tea room and share articles on the Team Slack channel. She would bring in samples and leave them in the fridge with a sign saying “take me home and see the benefits”. She was sending petitions around to colleagues to of lobby politicians; she was encouraging them to join her at a community rally. She was a passionate, creative thinker who often won pitches for her ideas thinking outside the box. But the Raw Milk thing was getting to people. Her Team Leader approached her gently asking her to stop the campaign at work and she subtly suggested she would post something about this discussion on social media … That’s when we got the call. We facilitated an escalated discussion between her and her Director. It allowed expectations to be articulated around behaviour, culture etc. The preparation allowed us to coach the Leader how to have a difficult conversation.

Here are some other examples that we’ve worked with in recent times

  • “My manager is a strong advocate for same-sex marriage. Before the vote, at every weekly team meeting she would start by addressing it. It was just too much. I agreed with her but it was too much. I didn’t say anything because we are all really nice to each other.”
  • “Someone I work closely with has started wearing a kafia to work . I am not comfortable with it. I’m not connected to the global issues but I know it’s controversial. I spoke to my manager but he said they are allowed to express their opinion. That was an unsatisfactory response. It distracts me and I know some people don’t like it. But I feel if I raise it with my colleague they will just get angry with me”.
  • “Bring your pet to work! There is no room for a different opinion in my workplace. If you say anything about it not being something you enjoy, you get laughed at and spoken about as if you are an animal hater and it’s definitely career limiting.”.

Basic rule of thumb

At an organisational level do you have a strategy on managing employee activism and an integrated approach to how you want to respond to contemporary issues. Here’s an article to think about. Do you have a policy on employee activism? Further, what is the organisation’s role in helping employees manage strong emotion.

At a local Team level, if there is a non-work-related topic that someone in the Team is actually uncomfortable about, perhaps the basic rule of thumb should be applied: we won’t talk about it. That means there needs to be an awareness of comfort levels to topics and conversations to be had. Do your employees know that’s an expectation? How do you support the establishment of clear boundaries?

At the local team level, its often the Manager who faces these issues. This adds to an ever-increasing need for managers to have conflict resolution skills (one of my passion causes!!!) and be able to proactively raise and lead a conversation, and where necessary escalate in a timely manner. Many managers report feeling ill-equipped to have or facilitate sensitive topics (see workshop details below!).

Are you or are your managers skilled enough to do this? What are the risks of them not doing it well?. If you do provide training is the training emotionally challenging enough and do you have access to an external facilitator (like us!), who can support the situation when things are strained. How are you at balancing your “speak up culture”, psychological safety and individual v collective responsibilities. How are you at creating safe spaces for productive conversations?

So much to think about… If you want to have a zoom cuppa to discuss these trends or your own scenarios please be in touch. We may just need to do another blog on this topic…

And you may want to consider attending or workshop on Facilitating Discussions: Balancing Risk, Content and Relationships August 20th.

If this topic has interested you then check our earlier blogs:

I have the RIGHT... or do you have a RESPONSIBILITY???