Global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) released its Future of Work: Adapting to the democratised workplace report, which found that 47 per cent of Australian corporate leaders expect employees to protest, more frequently, the actions or decisions of companies that they feel are not in keeping with that business’ mission statement.
This finding offers an interesting contrast to businesses globally, where 37 of businesses anticipate such employee activism.
Key triggers for employee activism, the report showed, included fears around automation replacing human workers (57 per cent), outweighed pay and benefits (47 per cent) and environmental concerns (46 per cent).
Some 69 per cent of respondents based in the US and 67 per cent of those in Australia identified automation as a significant trigger for activism, compared with just 45 per cent of those in Asia.
According to HSF partner Anthony Longland, the rise of social media will be an essential factor in increasing employee activism.
“Social media is undoubtedly driving activism. People are using it proactively and effectively, and it means that employment cases and campaigns are far more prominent,” he said.
“The #MeToo campaign may be past its peak, but its impact cannot be overstated – and employers have had to strengthen their capabilities and technique in order to deal with the increase in claims.”
Those who took part in the HSF research believe that employee activism could cost businesses up to one-quarter (25 per cent) of revenue globally.
The report also found that more than eight in 10 (81 per cent) businesses expect the rise in employee activism over the next three to five years, with Australian executives “showing a particular concern” about employee objections to managerial decisions.
Responding more broadly to the findings, Mr Longland said that employees are “becoming increasingly agitated” about issues that go beyond the traditional personal concerns around pay and workplace culture.
“Our research suggests that employees are willing to voice opinions about topics ranging from strategic corporate decisions to ethical business conduct,” he said.
“The expected rise in activism is important because companies see workforce issues as a significant risk to corporate reputation. Globally, 55 per cent of respondents name workforce issues as a risk to reputation, only exceeded by cyber threats, and global economic slowdown. In Australia, 64 per cent of respondents identify activism-related workforce damage as a key risk to corporate reputation.
“It presents a dilemma for employers, who must balance the potential damage to reputation with the reality of creating value for shareholders.”
Elsewhere, the report showed that employee activism is no longer limited to permanent employees, with respondents suggesting agency and contract workers are increasingly confident about sharing their views.
Eighty-six per cent of Australian respondents, the report noted, said that they expect to see an increase in non-employee worker activism in the future, compared with just 75 per cent of those in Europe and the UK.
“Unions and some political parties have been very critical about contracting out as an employment model because the jobs can be insecure, and Australia is not alone in experiencing that,” Mr Longland said.
“As a result, casual employment has recently become a focus for class action funders. In these cases, typically the plaintiff and plaintiff’s lawyers will push out a lot of advertising in the hope of persuading more people to join the class action, and that raises awareness – and engenders a response in employers.”
The research was based on the views of 375 C-suite executives at large businesses with more than 1,000 employees and sales volumes in excess of £250 million (approx $470 million).