Commentary: Red Hen, Microsoft and the power of workplace activism

U.S. citizens are finding myriad ways to react to the daily developments in the political landscape: from protesting, to calling their elected representatives, to supporting nonprofits that do advocacy or provide services.

An advertisement is played on a set of large screens at the Microsoft office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Increasingly, though, people are realizing that their most powerful tool is their employer – that they wield more leverage at their desk, terminal or cash register than they do at the ballot box.

Corporate activism no longer resides solely in the corner office. Today, employees of all levels are speaking up and taking action. In this era of 24-hour connectedness, where work is one’s identity, the notion of acting in one’s “personal capacity” seems charmingly antiquated. But more importantly, these employees aren’t claiming to act in their personal capacity: They are explicitly and deliberately using their workplaces to further their moral or political agendas.

On one level, this is perhaps as it should be: Companies and individuals are recognizing the value of encouraging staff to bring their whole selves to work; and companies are being forced to grapple with their complicity in myriad issues. However, businesses have a tricky line to walk between honoring agency and inviting chaos.

Companies would do well to assess whether they can align their policies and practices with their workforce’s beliefs. If they don’t, citizens will take matters into their own hands as they always have – however, today they won’t head to the streets, but into their cubicles.

The separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border has spurred a new wave of employee activism. Individual Microsoft employees may not be able to change U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s policies, but they do provide cloud services to the agency that enable it to function. Last week, more than 100 Microsoft employees wrote an open letter to Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella, asking him to terminate Microsoft’s ICE contract so as not to be complicit in the separation of families.

Salesforce and Amazon employees followed suit, asking their CEOs to cancel controversial government contracts. In April, thousands of Google employees signed a letter to their chief executive protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that can use artificial intelligence to improve drone strikes.

(So far the companies have demurred: Salesforce and Microsoft condemned the policies while stating that their work for the government isn’t related to family separations; Google said its involvement in the Pentagon program was not “offensive” in nature. Amazon has not commented.)

American Airlines asked the federal government to not use its flights to transport children separated from their parents, in support of some of its flight attendants’ distress at having to assist passengers on such flights.

While some employees are banding together to express their views, others are taking matters into their own hands. Don’t like what the president says on Twitter? Don’t just rant about it: A departing Twitter employee shut down @realDonaldTrump on the way out the door.

Against a woman’s right to choose? Don’t wait for your legislature to place limits on abortion: One Walgreens pharmacist refused to fill a woman’s prescription for misoprostol, a medication that can end a failed pregnancy, citing his “ethical beliefs.”

Angry after every White House press briefing? Don’t wait until Election Day: The owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, ejected White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

To be sure, this is a risky strategy. Not every company wants to wade into political debates for fear of alienating part of its employee or customer base. The First Amendment protects against government infringement of free speech, but employees of private companies can still be fired for speaking up. Some states, including New York and California, prohibit discrimination on the basis of an employee’s beliefs or activity – unless such activity interferes with business, which the above cases could certainly be construed as doing.

And of course, this is a slippery slope. Those who cheer incidents of harassment against Trump administration officials might be less sanguine about other acts of discrimination, such as the recent cases of a baker and a florist refusing to provide services to same-sex weddings.

Discrimination aside, activist employees are more likely to find alignment in the C-Suite today than they would have in past years, as CEOs are wading into the waters of societal issues that previously would have been deemed too treacherous.

Cynics and pragmatists might argue that this is just good business: Anti-immigration policies make it difficult to recruit global talent; investing in renewable energy and waste reduction is a win-win for the planet and the bottom line.

The socially responsible investment movement has believed for decades that proactive management of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues makes for higher returns. Blackrock CEO Larry Fink took that position mainstream in his annual letter this year, writing, “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

But for some business leaders, it’s personal. In stepping down from Trump’s Manufacturing Council last year after the president failed to condemn a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier didn’t go quietly: He tweeted that "As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism." (The chief executives of Intel and Under Armour also resigned from the council.)

Still other companies have taken stances that come with no obvious payoff and some business risk. In the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, some retailers, including Dick’s and REI, enacted restrictions on gun sales – while legislators have proven unwilling or unable to do the same. Citibank made an even bolder move, establishing restrictions for firearm sales by its commercial customers, saying that for customers who do not comply, the bank will “transition their business away.”

While some may view these corporate moves as effective levers for creating change, they rarely shift the systemic factors that underpin these issues. The government still enacts laws and policies (lobbying power notwithstanding), and companies are still beholden to their profit motives. If businesses stray too far from what serves their bottom lines, they will cease to exist.

But cubicle activism won’t go away anytime soon. The companies that win will be the ones that figure out how to ensure that their employees feel heard, even if their wishes aren’t fully granted. If an organization can provide a forum for staff to voice opinions and have constructive debate, that can not only obviate the need for individual employees to go rogue – it could also prove a model for society beyond its own walls.

About the Author

Christine Bader is the author of “The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil.” She previously worked for BP and Amazon. @christinebader

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.