How To Be An Activist At Work Whether You’re The Boss Or Employee

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Nov. 6 2020, Published 2:50 a.m. ET

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It’s not always easy to bring up issues that we feel passionately about in the workplace. It can also be tricky to broach these problems and determine solutions with management. However, it is important to speak up and advocate for yourself and your issues of interest.

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Perhaps you care about the environment and feel strongly about climate change. Maybe what matters to you is inclusivity and you want to see greater racial diversity at your job. Or gender inequality is what you stand firm on, and you’re tired of seeing male colleagues getting promoted and paid better ahead of you and your female counterparts.

When it comes to race, The Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of Americans said it was important for companies to promote racial and ethnic diversity at work, however only 24 percent agreed that race and ethnicity should be taken into consideration when choosing who to hire or promote.

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Likewise, when it comes to gender inequality, in a poll also conducted by The Pew Research Center, 42 percent of American women said that they’ve faced gender discrimination in the workplace, from earning less than their male colleagues to being passed over for important assignments.

Meanwhile, climate change issues are quickly becoming one of the most important concerns being vocalized to bosses by workers. The 2020 Employee Expectations report found that global comments on ‘environmental issues’ jumped 52 percent in 2019.

If this proves anything, it’s that if you feel strongly about something then it’s up to you to fight the good fight and speak up. You can make a difference. Here, Jane Downes, the founder of career coaching service Clearview Coaching Group, explains how you can be an activist at work, whether you’re the boss or the employee. “One thing is for sure,” Downes says, “it takes courage to be an activist, and it takes conviction.”

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Advice For Employees


1. Seek support

It can be daunting to challenge the status quo. That is why it’s so important to find like-minded people in your workplace. “Build a consensus among the people you work with and seek out others to join you on your mission,” Downes advises. “Ensure you have already gained respect in the workplace so people will follow you,” she adds.

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2. Keep control

It can be easy to get riled up when you feel passionate about something, but to action real change, be sure to keep your emotions in check. “Remove emotion from the situation and focus on solutions or steps to move forward,” Downes advises. Well-reasoned arguments will be better received than confrontations.

3. Make a plan

Before you consult with the higher-ups, it’s important to have an idea of what steps your organization can take to improve. “Build a clear and realistic plan for action and provide opportunities for sharing information and brainstorming,” says Downes. You don’t have to have it all mapped out, but being able to offer suggestions for change, can help others to see what’s possible.

4. Build trust 

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If you’re a new employee you might be keen to get the ball rolling. However, it can be beneficial to have the trust of your colleagues before you start working on major issues like inclusivity or climate change. Downes explains that you need to first earn trust and credibility and always be calm and measured in your approach. It’s important to avoid pointing the finger of the blame too. This will only make others feel defensive and is unlikely to further your aims.

5. Emphasize the benefits

Explaining to your bosses and colleagues how your agenda can benefit the company is likely to get more people on your side and working towards a similar goal. Downes says it’s important to discuss the specific benefits in each area of the organization. Approaching workplace activism in this way will encourage more people to buy into your ideas, without damaging relationships within your workplace, Downes notes.

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Advice For Employers

Activism at work

1. Be a good listener  

It can be intimidating when employees broach issues around inclusivity, but Downes encourages you to avoid running a mile. Instead, the solution is to step forward. Hear what your employees are saying and decide to lead.

2. Appoint the right people

While you should play an active role in workplace activism, it’s okay to appoint others into these roles to help with your aims and objectives. Downes recommends coaching others to take ownership of these initiatives. Turning it into a team activity gives the movement more momentum and allows a space for constructive brainstorming.

3. Be realistic

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You’ve no doubt heard the phrase ‘under-promise and over-deliver’. Downes says you should be careful not to overpromise on change. Instead, she says “request solutions from your team, rather than simply problem-sharing.”

4. Break it down

It can be easy to bite off more than you can chew, that’s why small steps are the way forward. “Pick one issue or agenda to tackle per quarter,” Downes advises. “Then chunk it down into bitesize ways forward,” she adds. Approaching activism in this way makes it easier for you to monitor your results too.

5. Don’t point the finger

When employees broach activism issues it can be easy to feel defensive and complicit in the company’s failings, or you may see it as a failing of the higher-ups. However at all costs, you should avoid the blame game, says Downes. “Instead, focus on forwarding solutions in a calm and resourceful way,” she adds. Blame isn’t going to get anyone on side.

Bringing activism into the workplace can seem challenging, but its one well worth undertaking. “The key to being a positive and transformative workplace activist is to not stir up a deliberate drama around an issue or move into an accusatory place and be seen as a whistleblower,” Downes concludes. “Being an activist doesn’t necessarily mean storming the boardroom and breaking down doors to have your view heard. You can make a deliberate decision to put an issue on the table in a professional way and most importantly achieve positive results by doing so.”

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By: Victoria Stokes

Victoria Stokes is a writer from the United Kingdom. When she’s not writing about her favorite topics, she usually has her nose stuck in a good book. Victoria lists coffee, cocktails, and the color pink among some of her favorite things.

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