When Amazon Went Union Busting: 4 Lessons on How to Handle Employee Activism

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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Amazon has grown to become one of the largest multinational companies in the world. But in recent years, the company has been accused of deterring staff from organizing unions.

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When Amazon Went Union Busting: 4 Lessons on How to Handle Employee Activism
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Amazon has recently become embroiled in a conflict with its workers, facing allegations of poor working conditions and suppressing the organization of unions within its workforce.

As a result, the retail giant received a lot of press, but the truth is they aren’t the only company afraid of what unionizing could do to their business. The problem is, employee activism and unionizing can be a contentious subject and therefore needs to be dealt with accordingly.

With employee activism on the rise, this presents both an opportunity and a challenge for organizations. So what can you learn from Amazon when it comes to handling employee activism?

The case of Amazon

Since Amazon was founded in 1994, the organization has managed to keep unions out of its warehouses and offices. But the question remains, how have they done this? Is it by being a great employer, or is it by using methods to quash any talk of unionizing?

Well, in 2020, amid ongoing concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic, protests began as employees demanded safer working conditions.

Not only this, but a warehouse in Alabama saw workers vote against starting a union, where Amazon was later accused of illegally interfering with the vote to put an end to what would have been the country’s first unionized Amazon warehouse.

With so much employee activism emerging across the business, it was then reported that Amazon was hiring ‘two intelligence analysts’ to monitor labor organizing threats. As a result, the brand has found itself at the center of an employee activism storm that doesn’t appear to be going away.

What is employee activism?

Employee activism refers to the individual or collective actions of workers who have chosen to stand up to their employers on controversial issues to raise awareness and encourage change.

For example, they may be bringing attention to employee experiences that are harmful or unjust such as poor working conditions. Alternatively, they might be calling out employers to address larger social issues such as:

  • Climate change
  • Equality
  • Diversity
  • Workers rights

Why do workers resort to employee activism?

Employee activism very rarely happens overnight. It’s often the build-up of those facing challenges or discrimination, speaking to HR or relevant bodies and then not being heard or understood. It often takes months of feeling ignored or downtrodden to rise up and take a stand. This is when employee dissatisfaction becomes employee activism.

There are a few reasons why this activism emerges, and these include:

  • Employees being harassed, mistreated, underpaid, or discriminated against
  • Employees wishing to express dissatisfaction for others who are underrepresented
  • Employees who believe their employer should be doing more (particularly in regard to social issues) to reach a better outcome

A well-known case study was the 2018 Google walkouts when thousands of employees from Tokyo to the US staged a series of walkouts in protest of sexual harassment, gender inequality, and systemic racism across the company.

 

And when it comes to larger social actions, Wayfair employees in 2019 downed their tools and walked out over the company’s links to US border detention centers.

How can corporations respond to employee activism effectively?

No matter the reason for employee activism within your business, it needs to be addressed properly. So employers must find ways to show that they’re listening to their workforce and making changes.

1. Communicating with the workforce

One of the most important factors in any organization is communication, and where employee activism is on the rise, this requires management and HR teams to get better at listening to and addressing the ethical concerns of their workforce.

Transparency is also crucial, especially where company information can go viral online in a matter of hours, so businesses must move on from the default setting of secrecy to openness.

A great example of how communication pays off is the online financial technology company, Kabbage. In response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020, they elected to discuss the issue at its weekly meeting.

Having heard their employee's own personal experiences with racism, Kabbage chose to give them paid time off to participate in the protests if they wanted to. The COO, Kathryn Petralia, also attended the protests herself, and the company offered to pay the bail of anyone who was arrested for protesting.

2. Practice what you preach

It’s vital that you don’t rush to get quick fixes in place that are insufficiently thought-through and that over-promise results without actually delivering. Leaders need to practice what they preach and this means ensuring that you’re not just going through the motions or making false promises. If you say you’re going to make a change - then do it. 

3. Step up and stand with employees

If your workforce is calling out for support on social issues and injustices, a very powerful and bold way to do this is to stand with them and protest. But you should only do this if you believe in the cause and agree with what your workers are saying.

Alternatively, if the protest has something to do with your company’s shortcomings, then step up to apologize and start putting positive actions in place to address the issues.

4. Get an activism policy in place

Employee activism is a result of issues that are contentious and emotionally fraught; this means that they need to be handled carefully. Therefore, it can be very beneficial to have an employee activism policy in place that your workforce can easily access. This should set out guidelines that help defuse challenging situations in a fair and effective way.

A good policy needs to outline what employees can do if they feel strongly about an issue, such as their right to protest and who they should talk to first (such as the HR team) if they feel there’s an issue. It also needs to outline the organization’s right to act or not act on social issues as they see fit. This way, both employees and employers know where they stand.

What happens if employers fail to respond to employee activism?

With more staff using social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and so forth to amplify their voice, employee activism is one of the biggest threats facing companies.

“Social media provides workers with a powerful tool to highlight poor working practices." - Fabian Wallace-Stephens, a Senior Researcher at the RSA's Future of Work Centre

 

But what happens when organizations fail to respond to employee activism?

Firstly, staff turnover is likely to increase with employees choosing to leave the company rather than continue to put up with an employer that doesn’t care about them.

Secondly, companies that develop a bad reputation for not looking after their employees or speaking out about social issues could find it harder to attract talented new workers, especially as the younger generation enters the workforce.

So it’s easy to see why businesses need to act fast and deal with employee activism in a positive and effective way.

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