Employees First: Embracing the Shift Toward Worker Power Can Set Businesses up for Reputational Success

The Pilot

By Ben Williams

Last year, we explored a relatively recent trend we’d been noticing: a shifting power dynamic within organizations from traditional centers of power – executives, senior staff, and management – toward employees. Our case stemmed from growing evidence of employee confidence in boldly calling out mismanagement, exposing toxic work cultures at senior levels, and staging walkouts and protests of company decisions. Now we can see that the impact of that trend extends beyond blatant misconduct or landmark cultural events. Data from Edelman shows that worker leverage has grown throughout the past several years. Employees feel empowered to influence their workplace, and they are driven to work for businesses that go beyond services or products, and make the conscious choice to elevate employees and address social issues. Amplified by current market-dynamics that favor labor over capital, COVID-19, and the social reckoning of the past year and a half, it appears that employee empowerment is here to stay. Businesses that embrace this powershift, and develop, communicate, and exhibit employee-focused core values internally and externally, will earn stakeholder trust and reap reputational benefits.

According to the latest version of the Edelman Trust Barometer, employees have higher expectations for their employers than even three years ago on everything from benefits to corporate social activism. Over three-quarters of employees feel more empowered than ever to act within their organization, or publicly, to influence company policies or public positions on social issues. A majority of current and potential workers say they expect their employers to express a point of view on social issues, provide transparency into leadership and business decisions, and invest in additional resources to support wellbeing, mental health, career growth, and more. Considering that current labor market dynamics significantly favor workers, heeding this data and adopting an employee-centric approach is especially important in today’s battle for top talent. And business and reputational success will be determined in part by how well employers embrace this new world order.

Thankfully for brands, workers report trusting businesses and CEOs – including their own – more than government or media. While workers have higher-than-ever expectations, this environment creates a ripe opportunity for businesses to thrive by embracing employee values and developing programs aimed at health, wellbeing, safety, and engagement on issues important to the business and workforce. We’ve seen this play out in several industries around mental health – an issue intensified by the pandemic and high levels of employee anxiety and stress. Major brands like Nike and Salesforce have earned attention for outspoken positions on the importance of employee mental health, and have implemented programs to reduce burnout and increase support services for workers.

Others have embraced their role in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasingly, job postings require that candidates be vaccinated before applying. Leading businesses, like Microsoft and Alphabet, began mandating that employees receive the vaccine in mid-summer, wear masks, or get tested, a winning issue according to Gallup and other surveys. While vaccine mandates remain controversial in some corners, most workers support an immunization requirement and are prepared to get a vaccine, especially before remote workers are recalled to an office setting. Overwhelmingly, it looks like mandates have succeeded in increasing worker vaccinations, helped in part by the trust employees have for information coming from companies that have shown genuine care for their wellbeing. As COVID-19 continues to impact our day-to-day lives, smart businesses will succeed with forward-looking approaches that position them as thoughtful partners in employee safety, while maintaining a functional economy and facilitating the return to post-pandemic normalcy.

Many current and prospective employees also want their workplaces to hold and act on social values that align with their own. While high expectations for business activism are not new, especially among younger cohorts of employees, the recent, noticeable shift in power makes those expectations more meaningful in operational terms. According to the Edelman survey, workers and applicants have high expectations across three core categories: career advancement, personal empowerment, and social impact. An overwhelming majority say they would be more likely to work for an organization that speaks out and acts on issues like healthcare access, economic inequality, climate change, COVID-19 vaccinations, and racism. One in three respondents reported leaving a job because the organization refused to take a stand on social or political issues. Throughout the pandemic we have seen workers leaving jobs in droves in search of more meaningful work and better opportunities with forward-looking workplaces, a clear sign that workers feel they hold the labor market upper hand and are in a comfortable position to demand more from their employers.

That said, some businesses hold the opposite belief, making the case that the workplace should be reserved solely for work, not social or political discourse. One could argue that when businesses become the engines of social change, they inevitably take pressure off the public sector and democratic accountability declines. Businesses can’t and shouldn’t respond to every social debate. In many cases, trending social issues are irrelevant to a business’s products, services, mission, or values. It is worth keeping an eye on these arguments and the subsegment of brands that remain above the social and political fray, especially as debates and polarization strain workplaces and present a matrix of complex decisions.

But as demands from workers continue to grow, and with reputations on the line, the arguments for staying away from all social issues on principle will mostly fall on deaf ears. Workplaces will struggle to remain silent without adequate explanation, transparency and buy-in from their workforce. Instead, to attract and retain talented, loyal employees, businesses should be prepared to selectively determine where social issues intersect with company and worker values and consider strategic corporate activism on such issues a pillar of corporate culture.

Smart leaders have appropriately recognized this evolving shift, acknowledging that employees now sit alongside consumers and regulators among the most important stakeholders in long-term business success. Data and empirical evidence suggest that power dynamics will continue moving in the direction of workers, and the next generation may demand even more activism and understanding from their employers. Embracing programs and initiatives that incorporate employee input, and place wellbeing and employee values at the forefront, will result in trust and a positive internal and external reputation that will return dividends to any brand.

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