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The Rise of Activist Employees in the Tech Industry

Things have been changing at an almost unprecedented rate with regard to power structures. The last time I saw this happen was in the 1970s, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took off. Suddenly a lot of the off-color, sexist and racist jokes that many executives regularly told could get them fired. A surprisingly large number of people got reassigned, fired, demoted, or otherwise punished for the same behavior that previously had made them “one of the guys.”

With the current #MeToo movement, any hint of wrongdoing — not only recent but going back to your youth — can have dire consequences on job prospects, image, and (depending on what you did) freedom.

This isn’t the only change. Employees who often were taken for granted — who might have faced firing or layoffs if they suggested going public with their anti-management views — have been popping up as a force in places like Google and Amazon.

What triggered this column was coverage of an employee event at Amazon, where employees spoke out against the firm’s efforts to sell facial recognition to law enforcement.

To a large degree, it mirrored Google employees rising up and stopping Google’s work with the Department of Defense, and Facebook employees taking issue with an executive who stood behind the confirmation of the latest Supreme Court justice. (There is currently a huge effort to remove Zuckerberg as chairman, which may be partially related to this.)

The power structure is changing, and if executives don’t get a clue, we likely will see the rise of a new and far more powerful set of unions — not based on old structures, but with the power of social media behind them. I think Cisco (and a few others) have a defense for this. I’ll explain and then close with my product of the week: the BlackBerry Key2, which has become my new favorite smartphone.

The Rise of the Employee

The trigger for this apparent power shift from executive management to line employees has been the increasingly severe shortage of qualified employees across a variety of industries. In many of them — nursing, truck driving, etc. — legacy unions exist, which seem to be forming a barrier preventing the use of new tools (read social networks) as a weapon of change.

However, in the technology market, unions are almost nonexistent. That appears to have forced a dynamic rise of semi-organized employee actions against perceived bad corporate behavior.

This is particularly noticeable with millennial employees who have yet to be indoctrinated into the corporate way of doing things and appear to be resisting that indoctrination. Certainly, we’ve all seen new employees coming in with little or no job experience behaving badly because they don’t yet know the rules — but never at what appears to be a loosely organized effort to make change.

Typically, these indoctrinated employees either conform or they are forced to find employment elsewhere. With the shortages, though, firms have been less willing to fire or even strongly reprimand employees who are acting out, for fear of losing them and falling behind performance metrics.

There are concerns that either a reprimand or termination could result in a broad, coordinated, public social media backlash, which could be severely career limiting for the executive or manager who triggered the event (managers don’t appear to be as well protected right now).

A New Class of Unions

Existing unions are largely ineffective today. I observed a strike action at a hotel the other day where the folks picketing (likely hired specifically for that task) were doing as much as they could to be annoying. However, the people they were pissing off were primarily folks who lived in the area, folks who were still working at the hotel, and folks who were checking into the hotel (guests who already had reservations).

There was very little impact, if any, on the decision-making executives, on people who had not yet booked, or on investors in the property. In short, because the striking union was using legacy methods that were overcome easily, the action was ineffective.

However, it is clear that tech workers have begun going down a very different path. Millennials came up with social media. They know how to use it both to coordinate their actions and to have a far broader impact.

So far, there isn’t a broad effort to organize, but ad-hoc efforts have been making an impressive impact on the policies of the firms they have targeted, giving the impression that if these groups were to organize fully and seek government protection, they’d likely have more power than any traditional union has had in years.

Social media is a huge force multiplier, and it can undermine targeted executives, result in broad boycotts, and even trigger government intervention.

Cisco Defense

One of the companies I watch closely is Cisco, and it has been at the forefront of creating programs that improve the world. Most of the activist efforts I’ve noted have been aimed at forcing firms to be more socially responsible.

Cisco’s programs have attacked homelessness, addressed severe problems in South Africa, and implemented aggressive plans to mitigate natural disasters around the world. Currently Cisco ranks No. 8 on a list of best places to work in the world. (It is interesting to note that Facebook, Google, Twitter and other newer firms that once seemed to be the most desirable didn’t even make the cut).

If a firm is aggressively socially responsible, the need for its own employees to force the company to change should fall below critical mass, making the formation of a union — formally or informally — less likely. Why go through the risk of pissing off your company if the firm already seems to be acting more responsibly than most?

This behavior has the dual benefit of attracting millennials who want to participate in this socially responsible behavior. Cisco isn’t alone in this. There’s also Dell, with its aggressive programs to advance women, and HP, with its programs to improve the lot of children in emerging and war-torn regions.

It isn’t just tech firms that are getting a clue. For instance, SodaStream has funded a huge effort to collect plastics contaminating the ocean.

I’m sure most firms eventually will find it far easier to ensure good behavior and prevent the rise of social media-powered unions than to face them in real time. Once started and in place, these unions wouldn’t be mitigated by financial restrictions or even common sense, and the result could be devastating for some firms. Activist employees could force an overcorrection, or do damage to revenue streams that could require decades to recover.

In other words, the best defense may be a social responsibility offense.

Wrapping Up

Thanks largely to a massive shortage of qualified workers across several industries, coupled with the impact of an incoming social media-aware workforce, a new power has been rising. That power currently appears loosely coordinated, but it is strong enough to impact unusually influential CEOs like Zuckerberg and Bezos.

If these groups formally organize and seek government protection as unions, it could flip the power balance in the impacted companies from executives to employees, with their impact broadening from social responsibility to more traditional wage and benefit efforts. (The massive compensation imbalance between line workers and, particularly, CEOs would be a natural target for employee activism.)

As Cisco has demonstrated, a strong defense — with aggressive social responsibility and making the company a great place to work — may be the best path to ensure the firm isn’t crippled by this power change. I expect most firms won’t see this coming, and that the end result will be dire — but it is totally avoidable.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

One of the best examples I have that the human race isn’t particularly sharp is the industry’s shift from BlackBerry (a secure platform based on productivity) to Apple, (a relatively unsecure platform based on entertainment). Not to mention that we traded the ability to blind type on a BlackBerry (so your eyes could remain on where you were walking or driving) for a screen phone design that requires the user’s full attention — which has contributed to an impressive number of deaths and accidents.

A lot of us have poor impulse control, and a lot of us may die because our screen phone pinged us at the wrong time and we couldn’t resist shifting our attention to it.

The BlackBerry Key2 is the latest BlackBerry phone, and while those of us who still use BlackBerry phones are an ever more exclusive group, I also think the implication is that we are smarter than our screen phone-focused counterparts.

BlackBerry Key2

BlackBerry Key2

This is because the security capability and productivity features in this phone exceed all others, making it an asset that’s likely to increase your earning potential, instead of a tool that might one day kill you.

Sadly, the device no longer has the near week of battery life old BlackBerry phones boasted, having given way to a far sleeker and more contemporary design. Both the keyboard and its performance are up sharply from the KeyONE phone that preceded it. The screen quality and design of the phone has improved as well, along with the dual lens camera.

If you want a phone that is tool than a toy, that is less likely to get you into an accident and is far more secure, the BlackBerry Key2 stands out as my favorite smartphone, and it is my product of the week.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.

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