Authors Provide Guidance on Employee Activism

Thom Weidlich 03.07.24


Companies increasingly grapple with how to handle employees’ political activism. Advice abounds. A recent Harvard Business Review article by two workplace-communications scholars adds food for thought. Hey, every little bit helps!

In the article, authors Megan Reitz and John Higgins note that political activism can take many forms, such as concern for the environment, diversity, human rights or supply-chain ethics. Their focus is on how companies can decide which issues to address and what the standard strategies are — “what gets talked about and what doesn’t.”

Mishandling this often blows up in a company’s face and leads to a crisis. Political activism is easy to bungle due to gaps between management’s and lower-ranking employees’ views of how open the company is to confronting these issues. That includes how real the open-door policy is or if employees feel they’re allowed to speak out. This is influenced by the cliché of CEOs being surrounded by sycophants, and so not fully understanding how they or their actions are perceived.

CEO Edict

Reitz and Higgins invoke an example from software maker Basecamp (now called 37 Signals). In 2021, CEO Jason Fried issued an edict that social and political discussions would no longer be permitted on the company’s own Basecamp account. A third of the staff quit, and Fried had to admit his mistake.

Another issue Reitz and Higgins discuss is that an onslaught of political activism, more so than most crises, affords time to pause and think about how to respond — what they call “permission to pause.”

The authors say companies typically deal with employee political activism in one of six ways: they ignore it, they suppress it, they give lip service to it, they engage only as far as the law requires, they sit down and listen to the employees, or they embrace activism. The first three obviously lead to employee silence, which leads to employee frustration, so the authors advise against that.


Reitz and Higgins, naturally, have come up with an acronymic framework for deciding how to approach this: ACT IF (authority, concern, theory of change, identity and field).

What does this mean? The first step is deciding how much authority company leaders have to address the issue or if input from others is needed. Then comes evaluating how strongly stakeholders feel about the issue, what influence over change the company could have, whether the company identifies itself as activist, and how big the story is and how others (including competitors) are responding.

These are certainly useful things to consider. We’re pretty certain conflicts over political activism will continue to vex organizations.

Photo Credit: Ground Picture/Shutterstock

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