Year in Review: Lessons from Employee Advocacy in 2019

It goes without saying that technology has transformed how we communicate. But as headlines throughout 2019 demonstrated, companies across a range of industries are still struggling to keep pace with the implications for their workforces.

From organized walkouts to online petitions, we saw how digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Glassdoor and The Layoff have enabled a host of new ways for employees to publicly pressure employers to change a business decision, implement or rescind an internal policy or take a stand on social issues.

Many employee-organized campaigns over the past year took a multi-pronged approach. For one, more employees raised disputes through signed open letters, often on Medium. These calls for change were often amplified through dedicated handles and hashtags that quickly trended.

The ubiquity of online connectivity has also proven to be a boon for reporters who want to identify and cultivate sources within companies.

Savvy reporters understand that platforms like LinkedIn allow them to circumvent a company’s communications team and target current and former employees with great specificity. More and more, companies are facing the dreaded: “I’ve spoken with a dozen current and former employees who have corroborated this story. How do you respond?”

What does this mean for companies?

The question ultimately is: why are these disputes going public? It often boils down to a perceived breach of trust between the company and employee.

People increasingly want to work for organizations they perceive as reflecting their personal values, especially those who are newer to the workforce. When employers are not living up to employees’ own values, and when they feel they are not being heard, employees may decide the only option to affect change is by exerting public pressure.

Looking back on employee advocacy in 2019, what lessons can companies learn to head this situation off?

  • Engagement matters. Leaders are responsible for articulating and fostering a company’s identity and culture while ensuring that employees understand the company’s mission, vision and values. Continuing to earn their buy-in requires ongoing effort and creative thinking about the channels and venues used to reach them, both digital and analog.
  • Don’t just talk, listen. When employees can candidly voice concerns, management has a far greater opportunity to address and mitigate concerns. A company needs to have credible and effective feedback mechanisms, ideally with options for public and anonymous channels. If you’re not listening to your employees, someone else will.
  • Hone your antennae. When making decisions related to business, culture or legal issues, consider how the company’s position and messaging may play with employees. What may be good for external audiences may have unintended consequences for employee morale. Ask yourself, would employees be proud of the action you’re considering?
  • At the same time, it’s essential to plan your response if an employee-generated campaign or leak drives negative public scrutiny. Among some key considerations:

  • Know the drill. Secure consensus beforehand about who should be at the table, when and how to escalate, and how to wrangle and vet information from across the organization in order to respond quickly and effectively.
  • Use caution when responding on digital channels. Companies must carefully calibrate when they respond to issues on their own online channels. There is a delicate balance between correcting the record and generating unnecessary attention. Tweeting a statement, for instance, will alert all of a company’s followers to the problem, when perhaps only a small subset are even aware of it.
  • Be authentic, but check your tone. When companies do respond to employees, tone is critical. Customers, media, elected officials, key stakeholders and, of course, other employees, are likely monitoring the company’s stance. Hitting the wrong note can add fuel to the fire.
  • What does this mean for 2020? Companies need to consider on an ongoing basis how they create an environment where employees are empowered as advocates and ambassadors — not as adversaries — and know their voices are recognized and respected.