Employee activism is rising as companies challenged over controversial issues
Last week, Google became the latest company to be publicly lobbied by its own employees specifically because of US immigration policy.
More than 1,300 Google workers have signed a petition demanding the company publicly commit to not support government agencies involved with the separation and detention of immigrants until those agencies “stop engaging in human rights abuses”.
Google employees timed the petition to coincide with US Customs and Border Patrol’s bidding period for a cloud computing contract, which Google could provide. The petition was also signed by 79 people outside the company, including several former Google employees and current Amazon employees.
While these efforts – taking place at tech giants as well as furniture retailers – have yet to make a significant change, analysts expect employees will continue to speak out at companies that help prop up the US immigration system.
“The workplace is radically changing,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at public relations firm Weber Shandwick, which found that four in 10 employees said they had spoken up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over controversial issues.
The Google petition comes after a summer in which the US government was found by its own auditors to have kept child migrants in egregious conditions; a senior immigration official blamed a father for drowning with his daughter; and the Trump administration introduced a rule that medical bodies warned jeopardizes the health and safety of legal migrants.
The tech industry, from CEOs to staffers, have led a new wave of workplace activism in areas beyond immigration, but employees in more traditional industries are also starting to speak up.
In June, employees at online furnishing retailer Wayfair walked out of its Boston headquarters in protest against the sale of furniture to migrant child detention facilities at the southern border. The company donated $100,000 to the Red Cross after the backlash, though protesters argued it should have been donated to a group providing care to migrants at the border.
There is no indication, however, that Wayfair has declined orders from US immigration agencies.
Whether or not employee activism moves companies to shift their business practices, it shows no signs of slowing down.
Millennials are most likely to raise concerns about their employers, with 82% of them saying they have a right to speak out against their employer, according to the May study by Weber Shandwick. In the survey, 76% of Gen X workers and 65% of Boomers said they felt they had that right.
“Society is so polarized that I think it has heightened many employees’ attitudes towards what’s going on and made them question what is right and wrong – and how far they are willing to go in terms of what they are willing to say,” said Gaines-Ross.
This increase is led by the tech industry, but Gaines-Ross said the Wayfair protest in July showed employee activism is moving into mainstream industries. “It’s definitely on the move and heading towards other sectors,” she said.
As employee activism moves to other industries, it is also revealing how the US detention system – which detains more migrants than any other country – is entrenched with US businesses.
After Donald Trump took the unusual step in July of announcing planned immigration raids which would use hotels to house people arrested in the round-up, major hotel chains released statements saying they didn’t want to detain migrants, according to the AP.
Hotels faced pressure from the main hotel workers union, Unite Here, as well as customers.
Major banks have said they would no longer lend money to private companies which run immigrant detention centers and American Airlines and United Airlines said last year that they didn’t want to fly children separated from their parents.
The global public relations firm, Ogilvy, said it would continue to work with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after facing criticism from employees over a multi-million dollar contract with the agency.
“Some of you feel strongly that we should stop working for CBP,” Ogilvy chief executive John Seifert said to employees in a July memo, obtained by the Wall Street Journal. “While I do understand and appreciate this point of view, I have concluded that our work for CBP is genuinely intended to improve the quality of this government agency’s public services.”
Pressure from workers on political issues comes as the bosses of major US companies have signaled a shift in their guiding principles.
Earlier this month, the bosses of 181 US companies changed the definition of the purpose of a corporation to “improving our society” instead of making the most money possible.