In recent years, thousands of Amazon workers have signed a letter making demands of their employer, hundreds of Wayfair employees have walked out in protest and 5% of Coinbase employees have quit due to unacceptable employment terms. Were these workers demanding higher pay? Work-from-home flexibility? Health care benefits? None of the above.
The signatories demanded that Amazon improve its environmental sustainability. The walkers urged Wayfair to stop selling furniture to U.S. migrant detention camps. The Coinbase team members found it unacceptable that their employer didn’t publicly support Black Lives Matter. These workers were risking – or altogether forgoing – their jobs for employer actions they would not directly benefit from. They were demanding corporate practices supportive of societal causes, what is known as CSR (corporate social responsibility), ESG (environment social governance) or corporate social purpose.
These workforces aren’t the only ones engaged in CSR activism. Research by Marketing Scenario Analytica found that employee CSR activism almost tripled from 2019 to 2020 (there’s no data on 2021 yet) and other research finds that the top reason employees are quitting, which can be considered a form of CSR activism, is lack of purpose at work.
CSR activism might be noble, but it’s not a walk in the park. It can derail our careers or get us fired. It’s risky in a myriad of ways. It can also fail. The above Amazon employees largely succeeded, but the Wayfair and Coinbase employees largely did not. Activism, therefore, is a last resort in promoting CSR. The first step should always be pushing for change within the system, ideally while being sensitive to business interests. Develop and circulate the document outlining the benefits, costs and case for greater environmental sustainability. Ask if there might be a way to pivot away from problematic clients toward new markets. In my work advising corporate leaders on social purpose, I find that most want to do the right thing but can’t justify it. Help them out! Propose a way to navigate doing good without incurring grave business costs and you’ll likely succeed.
However, if your cooperative approach doesn’t receive serious consideration after several attempts, it might be time for CSR activism. Yes, it’s risky, costly and not terribly effective. But aren’t deeply held values worth some level of exposure to potential peril? Aren’t CSR activists living a fuller life than those of us who remain within the safety of our compromised silence? Furthermore, even if we’re unlikely to change our employer’s actions, isn’t there merit in trying? What’s more, failing to elicit the desired immediate response doesn’t mean we failed to nudge the world toward justice. I witnessed activist employees move an executive to privately reexamine his values and, months later, support the CSR practice he had denied and decried. Our “failed” CSR activism, if that’s how our efforts fare, might build awareness for our issue across society. It might inspire others into CSR activism. It might soften the heart of a young manager who, 10 years down the line, will run a Fortune 500 company with heightened social consciousness.
A “good job” today isn’t just good for the wellbeing of the worker, it also does good. CSR is increasingly considered an employment benefit that is collectively negotiated, alongside vacation days and work-at-home policies. If you’ve tried to gently move your company toward CSR without success, there’s never been a better time to try the activist route. With a little pluck and luck, you just might effect meaningful change.