Will 2020 Be the Year of the Activist Employee?

Amazon’s Clash with Its Own Outspoken Climate Activists Sets the Stage for a Year of Homegrown Corporate Crises              

1/3/20 – – It didn’t take long after the start of a new year for us to see signs of a brewing reputational storm likely to buffet scores of corporations in 2020.

Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Amazon.com, Inc. is cracking down on its employees who make public statements critical of the company. (The Post is owned by Amazon founder/CEO/gazillionaire Jeff Bezos.) The story revealed the contents of cease-and-desist-or-get-canned emails sent by an Amazon HR attorney to members of an employee group calling itself Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. It seems these individuals have been sharing without corporate clearance their disappointment in Amazon’s commitment to addressing climate change on social media platforms and with reporters at the Post.

Accusing the company of pursuing “profit in businesses that are directly contributing to climate catastrophe,” they are demanding that their employer “become carbon neutral by 2030, end Amazon Web Services contracts with oil and gas companies, and give zero funding to climate-denying lobbyists and politicians.” Surprised that Mr. Bezos and the Amazon HR gods could be upset by her well-intentioned passion (and ignoring the company’s recently stiffened communications policies) one of the threatened employees explained that she is speaking up because, “I’m terrified by the harm the climate crisis is already causing, and I fear for my children’s future.”

Clearly, the HR warning was a lot less terrifying.

The employee group, which last year encouraged Amazon workers to participate in the Global Climate Strike, defiantly volleyed yesterday on Twitter, charging that the company is trying to “forbid employees from speaking out about publicly available information, such as Amazon’s partnerships with fossil fuel companies . . . or the funding of lobbyists & think tanks who publicly deny climate change and/or actively work to suppress climate change legislation.”

How did these folks, working for one of the most powerful and successful companies on the planet, get so emboldened? Sure, climate change is a legitimate concern, worthy of passion and activism. But what makes them think they can make such demands and take on their employer in the public square — without risking their jobs?

I believe this chutzpah is an unintended consequence of another trend continuing to gain momentum: Recognizing that employees and customers want companies to take moral stands in harmony with their own ethical and political views, CEOs are injecting themselves more and more into public controversies they would have steered clear of just a few years ago. This well-meaning willingness to rumble has empowered employees to follow suit. They’re following the example set by senior management and feel confused and betrayed when they get their ears pinned back.

We saw a similar confrontation last year when employees at online furniture retailer Wayfair protested the sale of bedroom furniture to a government contractor operating camps holding children caught up in our nation’s immigration crisis at the southern border. Interpreting the sale as a tacit approval of the Trump administration’s policies, more than 500 Wayfair employees working in the company’s Boston headquarters signed a petition demanding that Wayfair cancel the order and adopt a code of ethics to guide future sales decisions involving business-to-business customers. Employees walked off their jobs in protest, despite the best efforts by the company’s founders to quiet the storm.

If you’ve read The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm or are a regular reader of this blog, you know how big I am on going to school on other people’s crises. It’s an excellent way to get out ahead of trouble headed your way. Understand that employees are hearing your pleas to embrace your company’s purpose. They’re answering your call to do good at the same time you’re doing well. Employee buy-in and personal commitment are very positive. But you have to be clear about boundaries and provide defined paths for constructive input and activism within your company. If your CEO is a brash disruptor, don’t be shocked if your employees come to work with the same desire to break some eggs.  

Balancing the benefits and risks of employee social and political activism will be a major challenge for management teams in 2020 – a year made even more volatile here in the U.S. by the presidential election. We’ll be following, and hopefully learning from, Amazon’s efforts to navigate the storm. 


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