Patagonia is recognised by many as a pioneer in sustainable business. Does their ‘employee activism’ exemplify their bold approach to purpose? It seems encouraging their employees to be activists in the community could be a core driver behind embedding purpose throughout the organisation, and bringing a sense of connection to their people.

How can the principles of employee activism be used in other organisations to instil a sense of purpose?

‘Employee Activism’ isn’t as radical as it first sounds. The original inspiration for the term came from Patagonia’s support for environmental activists back in the early days of the company’s formation. Since those days, Patagonia encourages employees to become an active part of their corporate environmental mission through volunteering, grant making and fundraising events. All of these activities are focused around environmental groups which the employees can choose to support themselves. Something a little more out of the ordinary is their environmental internship programme, where employees can opt to take 2 months of paid time to work for an environmental cause.

To find something more radical in their approach to employee engagement, perhaps we should consider the term ‘activism’. This term often has strong connotations, and may be something corporations traditionally fear — think of Naomi Klein’s depiction of activists campaigning against corporations. A search of the phrase ‘employee activism’ also refers you to an explanation of how social media has allowed employees to become activists for or against the practices of their employers. But how could encouraging ‘activists’ within your own organisation be sure to encourage employees to work with your corporation and community, rather than against?

Looking at the impact of community investments on employees, we notice the benefits of team work, motivation, skills and reduced turnover. All industries and corporations vary in what is important for them. But maybe something which sticks out for all employees is the sense of contributing to something greater, aka purpose. Activists are only as strong as the size of the movement around them. We notice employees realising that as part of a larger organisation and body of people they can achieve great things. Even if you volunteer on a short term basis, employees get motivated when they see how their contribution forms a percentage of the corporation’s work as a whole, or as part of various regions and causes. In its simplest, being an activist means championing a cause. A certain strength seems to lie in corporations which strongly support one cause, such as Patagonia’s support of environmental causes, or British Gas tackling housing issues and homelessness. This integral relationship between the cause you support and the business you operate should seem a natural alignment for your employees, allowing them to champion your cause.

So whilst ‘employee activism’ in its essence may be a bold way to brand employee engagement with the community, this in itself may be the real beauty of it. A current problem for CSR professionals seems to be creating an employee engagement programme which is able to withstand company change. Having a strong brand around your programme such as ‘employee activism’ creates internal recognition and senior level buy-in, which remains at the heart of purpose in your organisation. Your brand needs to get people excited and talking, but importantly get people to act. Why not let your people be active employees and contribute to a bigger movement on what the role of your corporation should be? Apparently millennials in particular are demanding to be more like activists at work. Maybe we’ve truly entered the age of employee activism.

This article was also shared on The Crowd here

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