Over the past year, more and more companies have been turning to “HR as PR”: Making changes to compensation, benefits, or employer-employee relations not only to gain an edge in the competition for talent, but also to win the hearts and minds of consumers. The goal of this strategy is to say: “We care about our employees, so you should like us as a company and buy more from us.” We have seen this strategy play out in terms of companies raising their minimum wage, expanding parental leave or other benefits, and aggressively pursuing diversity and inclusion initiatives. In the US, we’ve also seen a dramatic increase in companies’ willingness to engage in the political debate, particularly since the start of the Trump administration.
At the Atlantic last week, Marianne Cooper looked at the growing political weight of Silicon Valley, where CEOs have been notably vocal in opposing the administration’s approach to issues such as immigration, where it could have a heavy impact on the tech sector’s talent pipeline. Yet another source of this activist spirit, Cooper finds, isn’t the C-suite, but rather rank-and-file employees:
“Typically, workplace activism is focused on issues internal to the firm. Workers go on strike because they are unhappy with pay or working conditions. They push companies to offer domestic-partner benefits or improve their environmental practices. The goal is to get the company itself to change its practices in some way,” [says Sarah Soule, a professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.]
What is happening right now in tech is different: Rather than advocating for internal policies, employees are putting pressure on their companies to become vocal opponents of the Trump administration—by having CEOs make public statements, by turning down certain government contracts, by signing on to legal briefs contesting Trump’s policies. Of the 127 companies that signed onto the amicus brief filed in support of Washington state’s legal challenge to the immigration executive order, the majority are tech companies.
So why is employee pressure to get political so effective in this case? The answer, Cooper continues, is because high-quality tech talent is so scarce, and so valuable, that candidates and employees have more power in terms of changing what their company does and stands for as a public entity. Software engineers with rare skills who can get a job anywhere, tomorrow, can simply refuse to work for employers who don’t share their values:
The strong demand for highly skilled tech workers provides employees unusual leverage over the companies they work for and the industry they work in. “The tech industry relies on a special kind of labor that is hard to get,” says Brayden King, a professor at the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Tech companies emphasize diversity and tolerance because that is what their employees want. If tech employees begin to feel that their company is not living up to these ideals, they may start saying, ‘I’ll go to another company where my values are more aligned.’”
Furthermore, it’s not only in Silicon Valley that employees are making greater demands on the values their employers espouse and demonstrate: Just this week, for example, staff at the Wall Street Journal sent a letter to management demanding that the newspaper do more to improve diversity, particularly in leadership. These types of employee initiatives and petitions are becoming more and more common, Quartz’s Oliver Staley observes:
Other employee petitions call for Oracle to oppose US president Donald Trump’s second travel ban, and to let men who work at US regional supermarket Publix grow beards. Employee petitions are now so popular there’s a website, coworker.org, devoted to hosting them. In some cases, the campaigns work: Starbuck’s relaxed its rules about visible tattoos and unnatural hair color for baristas after thousands signed petitions asking for a change. Sometimes, they fail disastrously. Interns at one (unnamed) company described in a blog about being fired en masse after signing a petition asking for a more relaxed dress code.
Given this shift, companies that come under pressure from employees to take public stances on politically charged issues need to make two choices: what they will say and what they will do. It may seem like the easiest win in this situation is to have the CEO speak out and take a public position, but not make significant changes to how the company actually operates, but this approach can backfire by raising employees’ expectations and then failing to deliver. That’s the worst of all possible outcomes.
Rather, the choice companies face is much tougher: You can say and do nothing, which will slowly erode any competitive advantage you have in the labor market and for customers, or you can determine what is critical for your employees and customers, and both speak and act to support it.