The rise of employee activism: Lessons from the Wayfair walkout

Employees of Wayfair, a Boston-based e-commerce company that sells household goods, recently staged a walkout in protest of the employer’s decision to supply furniture to migrant detention camps along the US-Mexico border.

The protests came after Wayfair’s CEO, Niraj Shah, dismissed employees’ concerns about the ethics of dealing with these facilities, which are reported to separate young children from their parents, and detain them in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

More than 500 Wayfair employees signed a letter addressed to the company’s leadership, urging them to cease doing business with the contractors in question and to establish a code of ethics around the types of businesses they deal with. In response, they were told that although their passion and commitment was appreciated, the contracts would be honored.

Following this rather patronizing dismissal, hundreds of Wayfair employees launched into an organized protest in Boston’s Copley Square — an incident that made headlines not only across the country, but throughout the business world.

The rise of employee activism

The Wayfair story follows similar high-profile, employee-led protests. Amazon employees mobilized to pressure CEO Jeff Bezos to overhaul the company’s climate policy. Just recently, a group of Google employees used the San Francisco pride event to protest their employer’s policy towards LGBTQ harassment.

These well-publicized events are part of a wider cultural shift — workers undeterred from speaking out when they feel that the values of their employer are not aligned with their own.

A full 71% of U.S. employees believe they can make a positive difference in society by speaking out against controversial issues, with 62% feeling that they can make a bigger impact than business leaders, according to a recent study by PR firm Weber Shandwick. In both cases, millennials feel more emboldened to effect change compared with older generations.

The study also found that 38% of U.S. employees (including 48% of millennials) claim to have spoken out to either criticize or support their employer’s stance on controversial issues.

The rise of employee activism is a reflection of the turbulent times we live in. Social and environmental issues that once took a back seat are now at the forefront.

Across the world, people are standing up for what they believe in, and are ready to challenge those in positions of power — politicians or business leaders — when they deem their behavior to be unethical, irresponsible or inadequate.

This movement is fueled by the digitalization of society, giving people instant access to information and news, but also effective ways to share ideas, form groups and spread the word.

What lessons can employers learn?

If the Wayfair protest tells us anything, it’s that people are no longer willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to matters of principle in the workplace. Instead of shrugging and saying business is business, or simply keeping their heads down to avoid repercussions, employees are increasingly willing to stand up for what they believe in.

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This is because employees — and particularly millennials — expect more from their employer than a paycheck. They want to work for an organization that has a positive impact on society, and takes social and environmental issues seriously. In other words, they want their employer to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

To be part of the solution, businesses must balance their traditional corporate values with the more human values of their employees. When these two factors become misaligned, employees will either speak up, or they’ll become disillusioned and eventually quit, perhaps leaving a scathing review on Glassdoor as they go. Either way, it’s terrible PR.

To avoid this, employers must cultivate a strong workplace culture built around values that really matter to people, such as sustainability, equality, diversity and inclusion. They must introduce policies, benefits and initiatives to promote these issues, and then communicate them to employees, applicants, and customers alike.

Employers should listen to what their employees have to say — both individually and collectively. That’s not to say that employees should be dictating all aspects of company policy, but that there needs to be some give and take.

The rules of the game have changed in recent years, with a rebalancing of power between employer and employee. The onus is now on each party to keep the other happy. As such, the shift towards a more ethical, human way of doing business is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the only choice businesses have if they want to remain competitive, with their reputation intact.

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