Employee activism and purpose

Engaging with community across the organisation

Bank of America employees at LA Pride

Patagonia is recognised by many as a pioneer in sustainable business. Does their ‘employee activism’ exemplify their bold approach to purpose?

It seems encouraging their employees to be activists in the community could be a core driver behind embedding purpose throughout the organisation, and importantly bringing a sense of connection to their people. How can the principles of employee activism be used in other organisations to instil a sense of purpose?  

Embedded activism

‘Employee Activism’ isn’t as radical as it first sounds. The original inspiration for the term came from Patagonia’s support of environmental activists back in the early days of the company’s formation. Since those days Patagonia encourages employees to become an active part of their corporate environmental mission through volunteering, grant making and fundraising events. All of these activities are focused around environmental groups which the employees can choose to support for themselves. Something a little more out of the ordinary is their environmental internship programme, where employees can opt to take two months of paid time to work for an environmental cause.

To find something more radical in their approach to employee engagement, perhaps we should consider the term ‘activism’. This term often has strong connotations, and may be something corporations traditionally fear, thinking of Naomi Klein’s depiction of activists campaigning against corporations.

A google of the phrase ‘employee activism’ also refers me to an explanation of how social media has allowed employees to become activists for or against the practices of their employers. But how could encouraging activists within your own organisation be sure to encourage employees to work with your corporation and community, rather than against?

Working in unison

Looking at the impact of community investments on employees, we notice the benefits of team work, motivation, skills and reduced turnover. All industries and corporations vary in what is important for them. But maybe something which sticks out for all employees is the sense of contributing to something greater, aka purpose.

Ejaz Rashid built the GivingForce portal as he wanted to use his tech skills to create a tool for multiple corporations and their employees to be part of a greater movement towards social responsibility. Activists are only as strong as the size of the movement around them. We notice employees realising that as part of a larger organisation and body of people they can achieve great things. Even if you volunteer on a short term basis, employees get motivated when they see how their contribution forms a percentage of the corporation’s work as a whole or as part of various regions and causes.

At its simplest, being an activist means championing a cause. A certain strength seems to lie in corporations which strongly support one cause, such as Patagonia’s support of environmental causes or British Gas tackling housing issues and homelessness. This integral relation between the cause you support and the business you operate in seems a natural alignment for your employees, allowing them to champion your cause.

“Activists are only as strong as the size of the movement around them”

So whilst employee activism in its essence may be a bold way to brand employee engagement with the community, this in itself may be the real beauty of it. A current problem for CSR professionals seems to be creating an employee engagement programme which is able to withstand company change. Having a strong brand around your programme such as employee activism creates internal recognition and senior level buy-in which remains at the heart of purpose in your organisation. Your brand needs to get people excited and talking, but importantly get people to act!

Anyone reading this article and is engaged with The Crowd probably wants to be an active citizen and contribute to a bigger discussion on the role of the corporation in society. Why not let your people be active employees and contribute to a bigger movement on what the role of your corporation should be? Apparently millennials in particular are demanding to be more like activists at work. Maybe we’ve truly entered the age of employee activism. “Use activism to ignite purpose in your corporation.”

A version of this article originally appeared on The Crowd, a mission-driven organisation looking to stimulate benefits for society and business.

Image: Dan Leveille/Wikimedia

Marianne Hughes

Marianne Hughes is head of client relations at Giving Force, working with the CSR teams of FTSE100 organisations to grow and measure their positive impact on society. Marianne is also a member of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation.