Workplace flashpoints could trigger a new wave of employee activism
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Despite the danger of a potential worker backlash, business leaders at some of the world’s largest companies are increasingly introducing measures designed to monitor and restrict staff behaviour and communications on workplace and social issues, according to a new report.

The Herbert Smith Freehills report, which surveyed executives and other corporate decision-makers in organisations with annual revenue of at least £250m, found the proportion of respondents who expect to see an increase in employee activism has fallen in every region except Asia (93%) and the US (88%) since 2019.

One-third of companies now see workforce issues as a threat to their reputation, compared with 55% in the firm’s 2019 report. Meanwhile, only 37% of respondents now see employee activism as a positive force for change – down from 49% in 2019 – and 34% see activism as a risk to be managed.

“This could be a function of the pandemic, as many employees were isolated or furloughed, and perhaps less likely to use their voice in and about the workplace,” said Barbara Roth, US head of employment at the firm. “It is possible that a new wave of activism may hit as people return to the workplace and as employers make changes to reflect their new normal.”

To mitigate the risk of activism, 94% of employers – up from 46% in 2019 – have now put measures in place to control or restrict worker actions, such as attending marches, signing petitions, or making public comments on specific issues. This figure rises to 97% in Australia, with the UK representing the lowest level (91%).

Some 40% of respondents describe their level of restrictions as “high”, while one-third of employers (33%) said they intend to substantially change their approach on the private conduct of workers and free speech within the next three to five years.

In an age in which social obligations on businesses are rapidly expanding and workers are ever more vocal on perceived lapses, there has never been more pressure for leaders to get these issues right

However, taking action against staff for comments on social media – especially if related to issues of workplace harassment or discrimination – is fraught with difficulty, according to Fatim Jumabhoy, the firm’s head of employment in Asia.

“Doing so may heighten the focus on the original comments and result in wider coverage, in social media and the press,” she said. “At the very least social media policies or other related policies should be clear on what is permissible and what is not, and prohibit discriminatory comments. Unless employees are publishing on behalf of the employer with consent, they should make clear their comments are personal.”

In Asia, covid-19 vaccine requirements are seen as the leading driver of worker activism, as governments around the globe continue to grapple with the issue. Other emerging global flashpoints include employee surveillance and monitoring, staff wellbeing, and workers’ rights under a hybrid working model.

In response, a significant proportion of respondents claim their organisation will substantially change their approach to flexible or home-working options (42%), compensation and benefits structures (42%), and wellbeing (36%) over the next three years.

One of the biggest concerns highlighted in the report, however, is the “social” aspect of ESG, partly because legislation in this area is less developed than for environmental and governance legislation, the firm suggests.

The report notes that the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and Stop Asian Hate movements have propelled diversity up the boardroom agenda, and cites how regulators are beginning to take action to drive effective change.

“Never before have employees placed such high hopes in their employers when it comes to social obligations and the treatment of staff. Yet trust can so easily be lost, with workers quick to condemn perceived failings across a range of platforms,” said Emma Rohsler, EMEA head of employment at Herbert Smith Freehills.

“The implications for the employer-employee relationship cannot be overstated as, without change, the risk to reputation and revenue has the potential to be significant.”

To help business leaders meet employee expectations, 70% of organisations are currently active on external employee forums and internal representative groups. Four out of five ( 82%) also plan to introduce digital tools to measure employee wellbeing within five years.

“In an age in which social obligations on businesses are rapidly expanding and workers are ever more vocal on perceived lapses, there has never been more pressure for leaders to get these issues right,” added Rohsler. “Getting it right means taking time to focus on ethics and values. Getting it wrong is not an option.”