Is India Inc. ready for employee activism?

How do we define employee activism and harness it? 

At a  recently held Public Relations Consultant Association of India (PRCAI) Leadership Series event on ‘Corporate Activism and the Rise in Purpose’;  Darren Burns, vice-chair, Asia Pacific, Weber Shandwick shared his views on why corporate activism should be encouraged. Darren presented global case studies like The Tampon Book, Apple’s supply chain report spotlighting standards throughout the supply chain system in light of suicides by Foxconn’s assembly line workers.

Activism for activisms’ sake?

Nitin Thakur, director, brand and communication, The Max Group quite rightly pointed out that activism can’t be forced on businesses. And how true is that!

Therefore the question for India Inc is to evaluate for to foster employee activism. How to handle a situation when the employee’s opinion may differ from board members or the leadership’.

Let’s talk about consequences

There are checks and balances that an organization puts on its employees taking a public stand on issues that could embarrass a brand.

For example, Applebee fired its waitress for posting online a rude tip receipt by a customer. 

Angela Williamson’s dismissal by Cricket Australia for criticising Tasmania’s policies on abortion services again serves as an example. 

 Discouragement may also come in other forms like being excluded from certain projects, promotions may suffer, appraisals may get affected and so on and so forth.

Corporate activism, therefore, needs to be an off-shoot of a principled and balanced view acknowledging the positive change employees can usher with activism. To understand this better, let's look at activism in the tech sector.

Activism easier for tech employees?

Amazon employees’ demanded that the company publicly report its plans to deal with climate change. This was unprecedented because of the sheer number of employees that supported the resolution. 

However, at the base of such shareholder activism is that tech employees often have stock options and can thus, exert this kind of pressure. 

India and corporate activism 

We have had examples in India of corporate activism, not so much employee activism. One of the most prominent examples is the famous Bombay Club of the 1990s that arose as a response to economic liberalisation. The Bombay Club was a group of domestic industrialists against removing trade barriers. This was often branded as an effort by domestic firms to fight incoming global competition.

More recently a Zomato customer wanted food to be delivered by a person from his religious community. When Zomato declined to do this the customer tweeted Zomato to cancel the order. 

Soon after this incident, Zomato from its official Twitter handle quoted this customer’s tweet and said, “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.”

Interestingly, Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal also joined the conversation. He clarified that Zomato has no place for such religious discrimination and politely showed the door to customers who want to choose delivery executives based on religion.

It was a brave move.

The way ahead

If India Inc. has to harness the potential of employee activism, it would be reassuring for employees that when a divergence in ideas between employees, the leadership or the board members arise in an organization, these would not be a call for repercussions until there is reputational or material damage. 

The rule is simple: if you want employee activism to support you, you’ll need to support their activism and not ‘appropriate’ it only when it suits you. 

The authors of this Op-Ed are Dr Jaya Srivastava is assistant Professor, Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication and Anup Sharma, is a storyteller and Independent communications consultant.