In the wake of the climate emergency, protests that may have been confined to personal spheres in the past are now spilling over onto the streets and taking place during the working day. How can organisations navigate this new dynamic?
Employers need to reflect on their organisation’s brand and values and consider the potential consequences of employees’ involvement in different forms of activism. They can then decide on policies that embody the culture of the workplace.
Various approaches are possible. For example, in relation to the Global Climate Strikes on Friday 20 September 2019, Shell stated it would allow staff to take annual leave for the protests, and outdoor clothing company Patagonia is reported as having said it would “actively encourage” its employees to take part, providing bail for any workers arrested during the actions. In contrast, many organisations might be unwilling to countenance potentially illegal or highly disruptive action – especially if the organisation has a regulatory focus or is engaged in providing vital public services.
Arguably, anyone engaging with protests has personal responsibility to ensure they understand the potential consequences. However, good communication is always in employers’ interests too. Employees should be advised of the organisation’s stance and of their legal position where possible, so that any actions they take are informed. Managers also need to know how to handle absences to avoid inconsistent decisions.
In many cases, the political issues involved are unrelated to specific trade disputes between the employer and employee and walk-outs are not organised in line with legislation designed to protect striking workers. This means employees are potentially at risk of dismissal if they take time off without permission. The protection for beliefs under the Equality Act 2010 is also of limited application.
Employers may want to seek meaningful middle ground. By canvassing the views of employees, it may be possible to identify alternative actions that also demonstrate solidarity. For environmental issues, this could be achieved by the organisation scrutinising and improving its own sustainability credentials. Other options implemented by some organisations have included internal events and fundraising to coincide with landmark dates.
Global movement-building appears to be a strategy that is gaining momentum. The issues giving rise to these activism trends are complex. Similarly, there are no simple answers to the question of how organisations should respond. However, by giving thought to formulating policies now, organisations are more likely to avoid being caught out by the next wave of action.
25th September 2019