As an employee, you have an inside track when it comes to making your company more sustainable. You have information about your company’s sustainability performance and insight into how decision-makers think.
Being a sustainability advocate can still be challenging, though. New research identifies a way to reinforce your efforts and broaden impact. Working with employees in other companies — building an activism alliance — can create change across an entire business ecosystem.
In the early 1990s, employee activists in Minnesota took this approach in addressing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Employees at multiple companies in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul formed workplace groups to advocate for LGBTQ+ employee rights. They also built a broader alliance, which grew to include 27 company working groups as well as a local nonprofit LGBTQ+ advocacy organization.
“Building an alliance across organizations takes time, but it creates a broad base of relationships and activity,” explained Rich DeJordy of California State University Fresno, one of the researchers who studied the Twin Cities effort. “Those relationships and activities help activists keep momentum even in the face of slow progress and resistance.”
DeJordy and colleagues Maureen Scully of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Marc J. Ventresca of the University of Oxford, and Doug Creed of the University of Rhode Island interviewed 72 people involved with the Twin Cities alliance, including members of 24 of the workplace groups and the executive directors of the LGBTQ+ nonprofit and the alliance. They also drew on news stories and other materials to document the alliance’s activity and impact.
Initially, the employees’ workplace groups focused on advocating for Domestic Partnership Benefits (DPBs), employer-based health care benefits for family members including same-sex partners. A few companies quickly adopted DPBs. Most did not, however, and the employee advocacy in many of the companies shifted to a broader range of workplace LGBTQ+ issues.
“We found that the alliance and the shifting scope all happened rather organically,” DeJordy says. “It was not any one person’s vision or even planned. Activists saw what emerged from different interactions and built off what was successful.”
Through the alliance, employee activists convened formal events such as panels, developed resources such as a manual and a speakers bureau, and found informal opportunities to share experiences. They supported each other in practical aspects of organizing, learning about LGBTQ+ issues, and handling the emotional highs and lows of activism.
In the photo: Building an activism alliance can create changes across the entire business. Photo credit: Unsplash.
Lessons for Now
Their experience has clear lessons for current employee activists, say the researchers. Today, employees are tackling everything from climate change to anti-racism to immigration rights. Connecting with peers in other companies who are addressing similar challenges can build momentum and spread effective approaches — leading to a more resilient and effective effort.
The Twin Cities experience offers hope. In 1991, only one publicly traded U.S. company had DPBs. But today, corporate support for LGBTQ+ issues is strong. “We believe that efforts like the one in the Twin Cities contributed to that social transformation,” DeJordy says.
Here’s what the research shows on what resources employee activists need and how to build an alliance that supports them.
Three Resources for Employee Activists
As employees in the Twin Cities tried to advance LGBTQ+ issues in their workplaces, they found three types of resources particularly helpful.
1. Skill building and action models. Many employee activists were not in roles focused on organizational change. They came from accounting, information systems, marketing, and operations. As a result, they needed to learn how to run an advocacy group and lobby for change. They also often wanted more education on LGTBQ+ issues beyond their personal experiences.
The alliance helped them develop advocacy skills. Early workshops offered panels on how to start a workplace group and find allies in upper administration. Another employee created an organizing manual that was shared through the alliance.
2. Connection. Relationships made through the alliance provided energy as well as practical knowledge. In advocacy work, it’s easy to get stuck or burn out. But activists who felt frustrated with their situations drew ideas and support from peers at other organizations, while those who had achieved wins in their own companies stayed involved in the broader effort because they saw others struggling.
Inside the workplace, activists sought connections that would help them gain access to top management. Most of the workplace advocacy groups initially focused on having their companies establish DPBs, a policy change that required top management support. Access to top managers came easily when activists themselves occupied senior positions. At other companies, activists built access to top management over time and in multiple ways. Activists who encountered some opposition had to build a more diverse, active, and resilient network, which helped them keep long-term momentum.
3. Persistence. Organizational change efforts are dynamic and complex. Sometimes, prospects look bleak: At one company, the CEO declared that employees would get DPBs “over my dead body.” But a single personnel shift can open opportunities within a company. (After that CEO retired, the organization adopted DPBs.)
Advocacy that leads to transformative change is a long-term undertaking, the researchers say. Success means building a framework that evolves to support changing efforts; it’s not about reaching a single goal. As opportunities shift, activists have to adapt.
In the photo: Connecting with peers in other companies who are addressing similar challenges can build momentum and spread effective approaches. Photo credit: Unsplash.
How to Build an Activism Alliance
It’s easy to focus on “insider” efforts or on visible external social movements. But activists can find spaces “between and through” workplace organizations, researcher Maureen Scully says. “Be aware of what other organizations are doing. Tap the wisdom of employees whose careers span workplaces, and even find unlikely, quiet allies. Keep your connections over time as both small failures and small wins dot the landscape.”
The researchers suggest three ways to build a lasting activism alliance.
1. Be flexible and fluid. Activism is not a rigid process. The Twin Cities effort involved formal and informal connections and individual and interconnected activities. It started small, with two co-workers deciding to form an advocacy group. They spoke with a former colleague at another company, who asked her boss to sponsor a public forum on LGBTQ+ workplace issues. Networking at the forum then led to the creation of a small task force.
As the alliance grew, no central governing group set strategy. Members shared tactics and templates, adopting those that proved useful. Activities gradually became more formalized, but kept experimentation as a central priority.
2. Build on diversity and similarity. Activists in organizations from different sectors made unique contributions. A local nonprofit working on LGBTQ+ issues provided a place to meet and guidance on advocacy. For-profit companies brought visibility, legitimacy, and considerable resources to the effort. Employees at the public university had activism experience and brought that expertise and energy to the effort.
Even within sectors, activists learned from each other’s different experiences. Similarity also had benefits: When companies in the same sector were involved in the alliance, employees could push their organizations to keep up with their competitors.
3. Facilitate connection. Organizing within an area has advantages because employee activists may already know each other. Social media allows virtual connections, but trust can be more difficult to build.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. Cover photo credit: Unsplash.