Focus on employee activism – light & shadow.

 Challenges and strategies when dealing with activists at the company.

Focus on employee activism – light & shadow.

Global events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and progressive climate change are fueling a trend towards employee activism. As such, companies need to understand how this phenomenon affects employment relationships as well as how they can and should deal with the issue.

What is employee activism?

The term “employee activism” originates from the USA but the phenomenon has long since spilled over into Germany.

But what is employee activism? In rough terms, employee activism is the activities by employees:

  • in the workplace or directly in connection with the employment relationship,
  • beyond traditional trade uunion or works council activities,
  • which aim to use the company as an internal or external platform for socio-political demands.

The issues include climate, equality, sustainability, and much more. As a result, employee activism involves political and social issues which may influence corporate decisions as a consequence of public pressure. With the activism, employees attempt to force companies to put certain issues on the agenda and even make corresponding business decisions.

In fact, activism on the part of highly committed employees in industries where their issues garner a high level of attention is far more than just a storm in a teacup.

Labor law aspects

Employee activism can only thrive in the workplace or in the working environment. As such, it may potentially have a negative impact on the working environment and may even directly affect work performance. This is where labor law comes into play.

From a legal perspective, this situation involves a conflict between the employees’ freedom of expression in the workplace and the employer’s interest in functioning operational processes. For further information, see our recent article on “political extremism in the workplace”.

Freedom of opinion (of expression) (pursuant to Article 5 (1) of the German Basic Law) does not stop at the doors of the company. This is recognized. Nevertheless, exercising fundamental rights must be in harmony with the employer’s own rights: Company peace must be maintained, employees must fulfill their employment contract (given that this is what they are paid for) to enable companies to fulfill their freedom of economic activity (Article 12 of the German Basic Law). In the case of employee activism, the employees’ freedom of expression ends the moment it disproportionately impairs their employers’ professional freedom.

But where is the limit?

This has to be weighed up while the following must be considered: Things that employers tolerate or find disruptive depends on the current times, the influence of their own convictions and other employees.

What is the best way to deal with this?

Ignoring the issue is no longer an option if employee activism is already present in the company. What can companies do?

There are three main options:

  1. Prevent activism by defending against it (defensive engagement),
  2. Be open and enter into a dialog with activists (dialogic engagement) or
  3. Actively incorporate the goals of employee activism into business activities (activist engagement).

The most suitable option depends heavily on the company, the industry, the philosophy, and the stakeholders’ expectations. No matter which route companies choose, the best initial approach will always be to start a dialog with activists to determine the boundaries with active internal communication while avoiding having to pull the defensive emergency brake at some point.

Is employee activism here to stay?

There are plenty of indications that employee activism is not simply a passing phase. Social trends simply do not develop in isolation from the world of work.

Depending on the company, its philosophy and environment, employers may be well advised to listen to the voice of their employees and work together to redefine old and existing rules because company peace must be preserved and employment contracts must be fulfilled.

Summary of the key facts:

  • Employee activism is socio-political activism by employees in their employer’s environment outside of traditional trade union work.
  • Employee activism is limited under labor law if company peace is disrupted or employment contracts are no longer fulfilled.
  • Employers should be willing to engage in dialog but must also clearly set rules and boundaries.