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Employee activism: How staff revolts are shaking up the IT recruitment landscape

As staff at tech giants Microsoft, Google and Amazon continue to speak out about pressing social issues, pressure is growing on firms to better align themselves with their employees on ethics

Business leaders are facing growing pressure from employees to consider their personal values, beliefs and ideas when it comes to setting corporate priorities.

Within the public cloud and wider technology sector, people working for Microsoft, Google and Amazon are increasingly speaking out about hot-button issues, such as climate change and artificial intelligence ethics, and are urging their employers to take notice.

In all these cases, staff are standing up to their employers about issues they believe should top the business agenda. Amazon, in particular, has seen growing employee activism.

In April 2019, nearly 8,000 Amazon employees signed an open letter calling on CEO Jeff Bezos and his board to adopt a comprehensive climate-change plan. However, shareholders voted down the petition, effectively ignoring the concerns of a significant part of Amazon’s workforce.

Gary Cook, a senior corporate campaigner on the climate and energy campaign at Greenpeace, believes this decision could have major repercussions for the e-commerce giant.

“The leadership by Amazon’s nearly 8,000 employees to challenge the company to take meaningful action to reduce the company’s contribution to climate change is quite bold, putting their names on the line to demand the company should do better,” he tells Computer Weekly.

“Amazon is putting its brand at risk with its customers, and also risks its ability to retain and attract employees who want to work for a company that is taking the climate crisis with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.”

In the proxy statement released ahead of the annual meeting, Amazon advised its shareholders against voting for the climate change proposal, on the basis that the firm already has various initiatives under way in this .

Even so, Amazon came under fire from Greenpeace in early 2019 over the sustainability of its datacentre estate, after the environmental group accused the firm of “turning its back” on its longstanding pledge to eventually power all of its datacentres with renewable energy. Amazon vehemently denies the claim.

Cook says: “Amazon has long lagged far behind its peers on addressing its environmental impact, and the fact that Jeff Bezos was not willing to come to the stage of Amazon’s AGM to hear the concerns of his employees, who were bravely and constructively demanding stronger leadership on climate, is unfortunately not a good sign for where Amazon is heading.”

“Amazon has long lagged far behind its peers on addressing its environmental impact”
Gary Cook, Greenpeace

Elsewhere in the tech world, Google walked away from a highly controversial $10bn cloud contract with the US Department of Defense when it faced a staff revolt over its decision to compete for the deal, on the grounds that it would conflict with its company values.

Microsoft also faced staff opposition over its involvement in the same deal, as well as an employee revolt that saw it urged to cancel a $480m US Army contract over concerns about the weaponisation of its technologies.

Alison Maitland, director of research at management consultancy Lane4, says these examples highlight a substantial shift in the context in which tech businesses operate, with employees coming to expect more from the companies they work for.

“This is part of a wider movement where employees, especially younger ones, and jobseekers are increasingly demanding that their leaders have integrity and honesty,” says Maitland. “Yet, worryingly, the CIPD [Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development] found that less than half (40%) of UK employees say their leaders behave ethically.”

Maitland believes that to remain relevant, attractive to new employees and able to retain existing staff in this new environment, tech firms will have to think and act differently. “This will require adopting a new set of mindsets, including the ability to be politically virtuous,” she says. “Leaders can no longer hold the mindset that ‘if it is legal, it must be ethical’, or that bad decisions can just be brushed under the carpet.

“Although being both political and virtuous may seem like a difficult balance to strike, some key behaviours of a politically virtuous leader include doing the right thing when they get the opportunity, truly living their values and, at the same time, being honest about what they can and can’t be transparent about.”

Honesty is the best policy

In recent times, businesses have experienced an existential crisis in terms of ethics, corporate standards and employee rights. Following the #metoo movement and fake news controversy, many firms face high-profile scrutiny that could easily result in financial loss and affect their ability to attract top talent.

Jonquil Hackenberg, head of c-suite advisory at Infosys Consulting, warns that companies under such pressure must get back on the front foot and proactively address the concerns of their employees.

“Management need to respond to such scenarios as openly as possible,” she says. “Openness might be the only way to avoid a full-on revolt – and how to avoid their dirty laundry being aired, uncontrolled, in the place.

“With consumer interest in corporate social responsibility [CSR] on the rise, and CSR being an increasing decision-making metric for investors, the Silicon Valley giants must invest in this to weather this storm.

“Restoring confidence, both inside and outside the organisation, is the best way to resume business as usual as quickly as possible. With accountability the key concern of workers, getting everyone in the same room to resolve the main issues would be the best move from management teams.”

“Businesses need to start viewing their employees as internal customers”
Jonquil Hackenberg, Infosys Consulting

In the long term, though, Hackenberg says tech firms may need to reassess how they view and treat their staff – who are, after all, their biggest advocates.

“Businesses need to start viewing their employees as internal customers to promote loyalty and improve staff retention in turbulent times,” she says. “This will enable increased staff advocacy, which ties back to brand equity and so has a direct impact on consumer perception.

“If you are an innovation leader, modern-day consumers want to know if you are walking the talk when it comes to your own employees, and not just their product or service.”

Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers, agrees that today’s businesses are under unprecedented pressure. She says two big trends are on a collision course for large employers – an ongoing struggle for employee engagement and the increasingly polarised and fractious political climate.

“Combined, these two trends mean that employees can become extremely and quickly frustrated if they don’t feel that their business aligns with, or respects, their own views of the way the world should be,” says Baumgartner.

“It is no secret that the majority of today’s workers feel disengaged in the workplace. While there are many reasons for this high level of disengagement, employee complaints about employers not listening to them certainly rank high on the list.

“Not only can showing your workforce that you are really listening to them improve employee engagement levels, but it also can boost workplace morale, job satisfaction rates and overall retention.”

Hiring in a politically charged climate

Increasingly, people want to work for companies that align with their own moral compass. According to a report from LinkedIn, 71% of professionals would take a pay cut for a company with a mission they believed in and shared values. Also, 39% would quit if their employee asked them to do something they believed to be unethical. So how does this affect IT recruitment?

Chris White, director at IT recruitment firm Sparta Global, believes staff want to work for a company they can morally relate to. “IT professionals have the ability to make real changes in a business and action complete digital transformation, but staff are increasingly reticent to do pioneering work for a company that has completely different beliefs,” he says.

“More and more of our IT consultants are curious about a company’s sustainability, mental health support programme and diversity and inclusion initiatives. This change in attitude is reflective of today’s society, where people are often marching or protesting to protect their beliefs.”

While some companies could view this increased awareness of company policy and opinion as a threat to their recruitment, they should see it as a real victory, says White. “With the pace of change in technology, and the strain on tech talent availability, this is an opportunity for organisations to attract and retain loyal staff that will grow and evolve as they do,” he adds.

“If an IT consultant wants to work for a company because its values are an extension of their own – what could be better elsewhere? With Microsoft, Amazon and Google now speaking out about their stance on issues such as climate change, this type of transparency between IT employer and employee could help companies organically grow reliable core IT teams.”

Read more about employee activism in the cloud

JD Peterson, a Silicon Valley veteran who has worked for the likes of Trello, Zendesk and Marketo and is currently chief growth officer at people platform Culture Amp, says the voice of the employee is being heard more but is also needed more than ever in today’s rapidly changing business climate. 

He tells Computer Weekly: “Those voices are making it clear in increasing fashion that the workers of today, and of tomorrow, are placing greater emphasis on alignment with their company around values, mission, wellbeing and purpose.  

“We all know by now that employee retention is a major issue because the cost of replacing talent is high. However, it is not solely about keeping your employees. Workforce alignment to purpose and values is a massive and growing driver of employee engagement. 

“Workforce alignment to purpose and values is a massive and growing driver of employee engagement”
JD Peterson, Culture Amp

“And there is a tight correlation between engagement and performance. So for companies looking to stay on top, listening to and addressing these issues that employees are increasingly voicing will be vital to keeping and growing the talent needed.”

David Sadler, head of IT at Acorn Recruitment, says differentiators such as social value and responsibility will be paramount to source and retain the best workforce as demand for more IT workers increases.

“It is important for companies to differentiate themselves from the rest of the industry, and adding an element of social value and shared responsibility into the job offer mix really can make a difference,” he says.

“There are so many jobs available in the sector that those who work in IT really do have the power to pick and choose companies that align with their own principles – which is why you will see many businesses that are now reliant on technology and a millennial workforce are increasing benefits such as enhanced parental leave, flexible working, paid qualifications and introducing more corporate responsibility initiatives using a more altruistic approach to employee engagement.”

Taking action after activism

When it comes to managing both hot-button issues and addressing potential ones, organisations need to pave the way for employees to speak up. But how do they do this in practice? “Pulse surveys can be an extremely effective platform for capturing employee input, especially when using an anonymous and easy-to-use interface, such as single-click surveys,” says Achievers’ Baumgartner.

“Offering a fast and secure way for employees to voice their opinion can give businesses a clear understanding of the engagement of their people and insight into their views on particular issues.”

But listening is only the step, she says. “Organisations must also take action on the input provided. Translating input into action does not mean that leaders have to act on every suggestion or concern their team has, but it is important to closely evaluate what they have to say. It is critical that your employees know they’ve been heard, even if immediate change is not possible.

“The business arena and world beyond are changing at a rapid pace. Employees want and need to be part of the conversation if their engagement is to be maximised. It’s time to listen and act.”

Sam Wallace, global head of practice at Carmichael Fisher, takes the view that organisations need to reinforce a solid CSR policy for staff.  “At the executive level, the impact is greater,” she says. “Executives embody the company values and increasingly will evaluate a potential employer based on how well aligned they are.  

“Companies must have defined objectives and identifiable outcomes to retain and attract the best talent. Without this, even household names risk losing their best people to organisations that have more impact culturally.”

Although the employee activism in Silicon Valley has gathered masses of media attention in recent times, it is clear there is a wider trend of IT workers who want to work for companies that match their views on morality, ethics and social issues – and companies that fail to take this into account will doubtless lose out.

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