For years CR professionals have argued that ‘employee recruitment and retention’ is part of the business case for companies becoming more ethical and sustainable. HR surveys regularly confirmed that people prefer to work for responsible companies — a rising trend among millennials.
Yet once safely enrolled in their flex-time, hot desking, yoga-rich corporate environments, the values of most corporate employees are muted. The perks of corporate life are simply too good to be jeopardized by making a name for yourself as a trouble-maker.
In fact, when companies did really bad things, like VW faking emissions tests, it was surprising that nobody blew the whistle to stop the illegal activity. Such was the power of employment contracts and the fear of losing one’s job.
Not any more.
Emboldened by a huge talent shortage in digital technology, young ethically-minded workers are openly challenging their management. Not in quiet chats with their line managers, but in public petitions and social media discussions. They have no fear of losing their jobs because they know they can immediately find another one. And they instinctively do not buy-in to the convention that senior management make decisions and employees act on instructions. They expect to be part of decision making, regardless of age or experience.
Google was first to experience significant employee activism when news of its now infamous ‘project Maven’ for the U.S. Pentagon seeped out. Maven is developing AI visual recognition to make drones more effective at recognizing targets. An open letter to CEO Sundar Pichai, signed by more than 4,000 employees, demanded:
“… that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology”.
Google did not immediately acquiesce, and it’s now reported that twelve employees have resigned in protest. There is also a rumour that Google is quietly walking away from a second phase of the project.
In a second high profile case, Microsoft is struggling to explain to its employees why it is working for the U.S. Immigration Service, ICE, at a time when its actions are so controversial. Recent reports of over 2,000 children being forcibly separated from their parents and detained in cages, is making shocking headlines.
Another open letter, this time to CEO Satya Nadella from 100 employees, called the separation of families inhumane:
“…as the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit. We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm”.
So far Microsoft has not caved-in, but the issue is so toxic, one wonders how much reputational damage the company will be willing to endure to protect its relationship with the U.S. government.
At present employee CR activism is an exclusively American phenomenon, centered on the tech pressure cooker of San Francisco and the Bay Area. And America is a highly polarized society. But could this dynamic spread to other countries and industries?
I think it is possible. Wherever there is a young educated workforce, a shortage of talent, and an ethically divisive workstream, there is the potential for employees to organize and express their objections, in public through social media.