How employees drive change

When employees become active and speak up about issues they deeply care about, companies tend to be intimidated. Employee activism is on the rise – and leaders tend not to be prepared to deal with it. The first reaction might be to hit the mute button. “We do not comment on political issues,” is a common answer an employee might get when they try to push their organization out of the comfort zone.

However, silencing someone will not solve the problem. On the contrary, the energy and passion that one employee might be pouring into a certain topic could turn into anger and frustration. Mishandling employee activism can even be damaging. The solution at hand is to think about how that energy can be channeled to lead to a constructive outcome for everyone, internally or externally. Of course, communications are a central aspect that can facilitate this process.

Most commonly, companies provide some sort of platform for their employees to organize themselves around a common cause in networks. In English, they are often referred to as employee resource groups (ERGs). These groups create a room for discussions, knowledge sharing and driving inclusion. For example, Microsoft has nine such ERGs on a global level – and four on a local level in Switzerland. One for women, one for the LGBTQIA+ community, one for families, and one for people with disabilities. All of them are initiated, organized, and driven by the employees, making it truly a bottom-up effort. Still, each ERG has at least one executive sponsor, a member from the leadership team. On top of that, driving diversity and inclusion is a core priority of each Microsoft employee, connecting the ERGs work even further to the company’s overall strategy.

But these ERGs do not exist detached from the outside world. Looking at a more concrete example, the LGBTQIA+ ERG (also known as GLEAM) is also connected to an inter-company network, leveraging even more synergies. And naturally, the employees are also part of the Swiss society. So, it was no surprise the employees initiated a debate which stance Microsoft should take on the referendum on marriage equality in Switzerland in September 2021. 

What to do? The decision was pretty clear: Microsoft has precedents of supporting marriage equality in the US, Germany, and Israel. Additionally, the company itself is very vocal on these matters, for example by celebrating the Pride Month each June. By not communicating its support publicly, Microsoft would lose credibility. And even worse, disappoint its own employees directly affected by the legal inequality. Thus, Microsoft has issued an official statement in June 2021. More companies joined later on.

The other question to answer was why: “Our customers are as diverse as the world. To create technology that empowers them, we need a workforce that reflects this diversity,” said Roger Altorfer, Executive Board Member of Microsoft Switzerland and the Executive Sponsor of GLEAM. “And to recruit the best talent, we need to create an environment in which everyone is welcome and valued.” This is not just important to Microsoft. “We believe it is also good for economies operating in a global context,” Altorfer argued. “Countries with inclusive economies have a competitive advantage from securing top talent and benefitting from the contributions of a diverse workforce. Therefore, this is also an opportunity for Switzerland. Most importantly, marriage equality makes sense not only economically, but also on a human level.”

In this case, the communications team played a vital role in mediating between all the parties involved internally as well as externally. It was the employees’ activism that not only led to Microsoft practicing what they preach, but also to contributed to the broader societal change. The people have voted in favor of marriage equality with a clear majority of 64.1 percent. 

After all, the role of the communicators is also that of listeners. Therefore, we must listen carefully to what our employees have to say. And decide how we can best support them in making their voice heard.