Ethics at Work…On E-Mocracy and Objectionism


There has been a lot of media coverage over the past couple of years on “social media activism” by workers targeting companies across a wide range of issues. We’ve written about the emergence of a new workplace e-mocracy.

Social activism can just be workers in a single company using Facebook pages to organize demonstrations. Think about Uber drivers protesting over their employment status in California, Deliveroo workers doing the same in the UK, or tech workers complaining about the (ab)use of sub-contractors or “gig workers” to do “regular” work.  These are simply modern ways of getting traction on pretty traditional worker grievances about pay, conditions, contracts, and the working environment.

The #MeToo movement, while much wider in scope than a single company or industry, is also about an identifiable workplace issue: the abuse of leadership power through sexual harassment.  #MeToo also went global, trending in 54 countries within 24 hours of the Weinstein allegations.

Employee protests about leadership behaviors and company ethics went to a new level with #Googlewalkout.  A coordinated strike wave was coordinated across the globe over the payment of some $90 million to a former executive dismissed over charges of sexual misconduct.

What makes these protests “new”, as I have written before, is that workers – through the use of social media – are taking issues that would previously have been dealt with inside a company outside…and into the court of public opinion.  Judgements in the court of public opinion can be quick and brutish, based on a one-sided view of the “facts” and with no appeal mechanism. The moment the photograph hits Instagram or the video is posted on YouTube, it is already too late to respond with logic.  

We are now witnessing a new category of employee social media activism, this time coming from highly-paid, highly-skilled tech industry “associates/colleagues/whatevers” – they are rarely referred to as employees, let alone workers. These protests focus either on the products or services the company is offering, who the company is contracting with or selling to, or the company’s stance on political issues. 

As opposed to “workplace social activism,” we might call this category “marketplace ethical objectionism”.  You will doubtless recognize these examples:
  • In 2017, large numbers of tech company employees took a public stand against the US Immigration Bill – urging their chief executives to pressure the US authorities.  We have also seen protests about the North Carolina “Bathroom Bill” and the Missouri “Abortion Bill”.

  • More recently, public employee protests have moved into the areas of contracting and research.  The media has reported protests against Microsoft on use of AI for military applications, and “confidential” projects Marven and Dragonfly in Google.
The issue of potential employees choosing the companies they work for based on ethical or moral criteria is not new.  Think tobacco, alcohol, military suppliers, etc. The new issue here is workers with very rare market skills saying “this isn’t what I signed up for” and “change what you are doing”.

The question is: “Should employees, and often socially amplified individuals, have a say in determining what a company does and what it says or doesn’t say on political issues?” 

We’ve been mulling this over with a few friends in the HR business and came up with some principles and answers.

Some core principles:
  • In a market economy, the owners of companies (through a system of management) determine the product or service they will deliver through a blend of capital and labor.

  • The workplace is not a democracy.  Employees have a voice on workplace issues.  Their voice on broader issues is however shared with other stakeholders like States, shareholders, customers and clients and communities. Management must make business decisions in that context.

  • “Society” sets the acceptable boundaries of corporate behavior. Companies that cross these boundaries can fall from grace, rapidly. In the “old world,” consider Enron.

  • Employees have choices.  The market for STEM professionals allows any disenfranchised worker to exercise personal choice on what they work on and whom they work for.

  • Social media tools blur the edges of internal vs external discussion and debate. They can also blur the distinction between workplace activism and marketplace objectionism. 

  • Discussion with employees purely through representatives, who are increasingly less able to represent workers on a rapidly broadening range of issues, is unlikely to work well. 
All well and good, but this is a serious “today” issue that business and HR leaders have to deal with. Here are some action centered thoughts:

Be sensitive early …  Keep abreast of what is happening.  The problems of the movie industry can morph into your business fast.  Where problems can’t be anticipated, they should be picked up early, as soon as they surface.

Be honest in hiring … delivering real expectations of what people will be working on. Tell them who you are and what you do. Give them a “walkaway now” option.

Get better at giving employees information … the way employees choose to receive information is changing … increasingly centered on the use of social media tools. This is particularly important when the nature of work and client profiles change.

Foster internal openness … by providing a trusted internal and interactive space that works as easily and readily as social media.

Encourage and appreciate views … rather than censor or punish them.  

Give employees choices … to resolve their issues in a positive way rather than through protest. Microsoft for example offered to redeploy employees with ethical concerns.

Be clear on the company views on ethical concerns … how to raise them, how to debate them, build trust and explain what resolution means.   

In market democracies, those who ethically question what their companies do are not forced to work for them.  They have a strong voice because they generally have rare skills and business needs to listen and respond…because for the same reason, the objectors also have choices to stay or go. Sometimes freedom of conscience comes at some personal cost. But in democratic societies, we have that freedom.