Employees are increasingly calling upon their organizations to act ethically and responsibly – and they want more of a voice in deciding what’s right.
Google offers an extreme example of what happens when an organization doesn’t listen; roughly 400 employees just formed a union, the first of its kind in Silicon Valley.
Traditionally, employees looked to unions for fundamental economic and safety reasons; their collective voices gave them power to demand things like increased safety measures, job security, or pay raises. When we think of unions, we think of the teachers’ union, or steel mills, automobile manufacturers, and heavy manufacturing in general. Our image doesn’t fit high tech.
Employees want to speak out, to be heard
But the world has been changing. Over the past five years, organizations have seen intense focus on how company policies impact social issues such as privacy, identity, racism, sexual harassment, environmental impact, and more. Employees want to speak out, to be heard, but can have concerns about negative repercussions. Often, these concerns are legitimate.
Over the past 25 years, the tech industry was a huge workplace disrupter, forcing more companies to compete for talent not just with high salaries and stock options, but with a whole new way of doing business that included beer bashes, free food, concierge services, onsite dry cleaning, and other perks. These disruptions influenced almost every other industry. Now, as we have seen over the past week, Big Tech wields extraordinary power related to political and social movements. The issues these days are greater than ping pong tables and casual dress codes. In short, the union formed by the Google employees, the Alphabet Workers’ Union, differs from traditional unions, in that it’s looking to give structure to employee activism – to provide a collective voice not focused on union issues of the past like benefits and job security, but on the larger societal issues in which employees believe. Last week, hundreds of employees at Twitter urged their CEO and top leadership to suspend Donald Trump. This was not a unionization move, but it was a significant, collective voice. In the past few years, more and more employees at all companies – not just tech companies – are questioning their organization’s impact on things such as privacy, global warfare, discrimination, sexual harassment, racism and more – not to mention giant executive payouts given to those accused of wrongdoing. The list is long, and more employees want to not just hold their organizations accountable but to make them more just.
Employees and organizational leadership should be able to work out their issues
To be sure, the act of unionization can be seen as a fairly dramatic act. In an ideal world, employees and organizational leadership should be able to work out their issues without the extra effort to create and maintain a third-party entity to broker the filling of unmet needs. Things come to a head when there is a significant disconnect between what employees want and what they are getting, creating the conditions for disengagement, loss of productivity, and, in the case of Google, the formation of a union. Often, these issues have been percolating for a while, and issues arise when leadership fails to address these concerns. The most successful organizations know and respond to employee concerns in a safe, respectful manner.
This is where a strategic employee survey can help. Measure employee feedback so you identify areas of concern, understand the issues, track action, and continue to measure it so you can more effectively resolve it.
Unionization at Google is a symptom
It is a curious, surprising, occurrence that reflects a deeper societal shift beyond labor-management issues, beyond Silicon Valley. It will be fascinating to watch how this emphasis on activism will change the organization-employee relationship in industries beyond big tech.