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How Employees Can Be Sustainability Activists

Make your company more sustainable by working with peers in other companies. An alliance of employee activists can change an entire business system.

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 activist 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 (USA) took this approach in addressing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Employees at multiple companies in the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis/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 non-profit LGBTQ+ advocacy organization.

“Building an alliance across organizations takes time, but it creates a broad base of relationships and activity,” explained Rich DeJordy (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 (University of Massachusetts, Boston) Marc J. Ventresca (University of Oxford) and Doug Creed (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 s to document the alliance’s activity and impacts.

Initially, the employees’ workplace groups focused on advocating for Domestic Partnership Benefits (DPBs), employer-based healthcare benefits for family members including same-sex partners. A few companies quickly adopted DPBs. Most did not, however, and the employee activism 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,” said DeJordy. “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 Speaker’s 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.

Lessons for Today

Their experience has clear lessons for today’s 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 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 US 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 told NBS.

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 activist skills. Early workshops offered panels on how to start a workplace group and find allies in upper administration. “Employees from organizations that were further behind would come and learn from each other,” recalled a staffer at the advocacy non-profit. Alliance members organized a Speaker’s Bureau to give presentations on LGBTQ+ issues to employee groups. “We didn’t wait for diversity trainers to come in. . . . It just wasn’t gonna happen fast enough,” explained an employee from an insurance company. “So we send a gay man, a lesbian, and a friend of the network to do presentations to approximately 20 to 30 people.”

Another employee activist created an organizing manual that was shared through the alliance. “There’s an incredible vacuum of knowledge for people,” she explained. “[I said], ‘Here is a primer. Whether you are at step five or at step one, here is the information you need to know…. Here are samples from [other companies.]. Cut and paste, put your title at the top, and go with it.’”

2. Connection: Relationships made through the alliance provided energy as well as practical knowledge. In activism 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 activists 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 one company, for example, an openly gay senior manager invited fellow LGBTQ + executives for a “living room strategy meeting” to figure out how to use their collective social capital.

At other companies, activists built access to top management over time and in multiple ways. At one company, an important shift happened when a young gay man working temporarily for a senior vice president encouraged her to attend a presentation held by the alliance. The executive then became a vocal proponent of DPBs.

Yet to build a lasting movement, workplace connections beyond top management are also important. Ironically, at companies where activists had direct access to top management, they often saw DPBs put in place relatively easily but then had difficulty taking steps to address additional aspects of LGBTQ+ inclusion. 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.)

Activism 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.

At some companies where leaders didn’t support DPBs, activists experimented with other ways to advance their basic concerns about LGBTQ+ inclusion. For example, they persuaded company sales teams that there were untapped LGBTQ+ markets for products and services, and they promoted LGBTQ+ charities as new beneficiaries of established corporate philanthropy programs. Through these initiatives, they built capacity in their organizations. They also shared their approaches throughout the alliance, enabling progress elsewhere.

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 commented. She advises: “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 coworkers 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. Researcher Doug Creed described the dynamic: “Many people were experimenting in their organizations, creating an increasingly diverse mix of activities, an expanding repertoire, and then sharing stories of how they grounded and developed their efforts.”

2. Build on diversity and similarity. Activists in organizations from different sectors made unique contributions. A local non-profit 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. The effect could be aspirational, when seeing another’s success encouraged a frustrated activist to keep striving; or empathetic, when seeing another’s struggles moved an activist to help. “They developed an overarching sense of solidarity,” researcher Marc Ventresca notes, “a feeling of ‘being in this together.’” These connections expanded their sense of what could be possible, whatever their immediate 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.

“There’s a balance between similarity and difference in an alliance,” said Ventresca. Similar characteristics — even a shared location — build solidarity. But different points of view, like those provided by activists from different organizations, enrich the effort.

Activism is Complex

Like the challenges it seeks to address, activism is complex and evolving. It doesn’t need to be organized and top-down, and it won’t move in a single path.

“We see three final take homes,” the research team told NBS. “Work with the systems as they are today, but with an eye to building capacity for tomorrow. Develop a shared view that sees setbacks today as invitations to rethink and regroup on focus, tactics, and collaboration. And finally, in the words of E.M. Forster, ‘Only connect.’”

Read the research: DeJordy, R., Scully, M., Ventresca, M.J., & Creed, W.E.D. 2020. Inhabited ecosystems: Propelling transformative social change between and through organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly.

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  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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