Employee Activism: Why We Did It and What We Learned

Leslie Gaines-RossCompanies spend enormous resources and time rallying stakeholders to win their support. However, companies might do better by spending at least some of this time focusing on a group that is in their own back yards: their employees.  The statements of employees, compared to those of executives and others, are generally considered among the most trustworthy and credible. Now that they have the power of social media to spread company news and information without the traditional corporate filters that used to exist, employees can either be your best reputation-busters or best -boosters.

It was a few years back that I started thinking about employees as pro-corporate defenders. I had written an article on online reputation insurgents and their impact on company reputation (Reputation Warfare, Harvard Business Review, 2010). The article posed different strategies for combating or countering reputation-busters and I remember being frustrated by not being able to find even a handful of examples of employees who rose up to support or defend their employers’ reputations.  These self-motivated, pro-employer employees seemed to be an isolated example. But more recently, I began seeing evidence of a newly emerging grassroots movement of employee “first responders.”

Suspecting that employees could be an underutilized treasure trove of pro-corporate advocates, we at Weber Shandwick conducted research with KRC Research among 2,300 employees worldwide in 15 markets. We sought to identify and to better understand the employee activist amongst us. Our hunch about the rising tide of pro-corporate employees was correct. One in five employees (21 percent) are estimated to be what we call employee activists or ProActivists and another 33 percent have the high potential to be one. These employee activists draw visibility to their workplaces, defend them from criticism and act as advocates, both online and off.

We think that employers have an enormous opportunity to engage and capitalize on these powerful enthusiasts of corporate values and mission.  Instead of seeing each employee as a potential critic or detractor, we realized that many of them might simply be brand- and culture-catalysts if we only knew how to encourage them and give them the tools to share stories and good news.

The impact of social media on an employer’s reputation is now an everyday reality. What some employers don’t fully realize is how critical social media is to employee engagement and how it can fuel employee activism, the good kind, if done properly. The Internet and social media are game-changers for employee communications, giving employees an amplified voice. The opportunity for organizations is to harness the exuberance of those employees who see it as their responsibility to be reputation advocates.

The research does not ignore the perils of employees being encouraged to go online and speak their minds. Those risks absolutely exist and we see it played out every day. But once we learned that one of every two employees (50 percent) is already posting messages, pictures or videos in social media about their employer, we realized that companies should inform employees on how to use social media responsibly and arm them with brand-safe and brand-compliant news and information.  In fact, an entirely new category of social employee advocacy software platforms such as Dynamic Signal and Social Chorus has emerged to service these employee activists. The march is on.

Leslie Gaines-Ross is chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick.

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