What does the case of Wayfair employees downing tools in the US recently to protest sales to migrant detention centres, have to offer by way of insight into the power of employees to influence business ethics in the future?

South Africa has seen public protest over incidents of discrimination and unethical behaviour, both in customer settings such as eateries and beach access, as well in corporate life – KPMG, Steinhoff, mining companies and VBS to name a few.  However, employee voices were not leading the calls for action. Is that set to change?

Based on a recently published survey by PR firm Weber Shandwick Activism in the Age of Purpose: Employees (UP)Rising, nearly 38% of those surveyed said they had spoken up to support or criticise their employers’ actions over a controversial issue that affects society.

Cases in the US, particularly in tech, are indicating this new wave of solidarity in search of values is growing.   Is employee activisma phenomenon soon to hit Africa, given that it is a movement largely led by millennials? The survey reveals that in the US, young employees believe far more in activism than their older colleagues, even when this means they are speaking against their bosses.

In the Financial Times on July 3 Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson wroteGoogle’s staff objected to its work on a censored search engine for China and a contract with the Pentagon’. “When employers fail to set policies that align with our values, we as employees are compelled to act to change those policies,” the protesters declared.’

Paul Polman, former global CEO of Unilever – a long-standing and major employer in Africa – is leading a range of campaigns to sign up CEOs around the world to address issues of diversity, sustainability and equal rights.  He calls for ‘heroic chief executives willing to step up and move outside the comfort zone’.

HR Directors are well aware of the imperative to provide excellent employee experiences – but they are not in the driving seat once people on the payroll.  ‘After policies comes practice and that is down to line managers and company culture’, said Naomi Ratsheko, Director of leading coaching and Executive Search firm N2Growth Africa, founder member of the All-Africa Employee Engagement Conference and Awards set up to magnify the business case for better engagement.  The conference offers employers an opportunity to explore thousands of case studies from across the globe and showcases best practice across the continent. N2Growth Advisory provides support to C-suite leaders to achieve engagement results.

Polman further asserts ‘Millennials want to work for companies that stand for more than just making money’.  Ratsheko agrees, ‘You can’t be running a business in Africa without addressing the wider societal issues.  While boards set the vision, unless that vision also connects to the reality of the community around them, the company is not likely to be a market leader.  Any director delivering on people strategies requires investment from the board for engagement approaches that are meaningful, relevant and inspirational, if that company is to be a great workplace while delivering value for its customers and wider society’.

Activism in South Africa is often taken for granted; when are we likely to see a move from younger activists in the workplace beyond the traditional labour strikes for better pay and conditions?  Is there a warning for boards and investors that corporate leaders who have lost touch with the reality of their staff teams need to reassess their relevance and contributions to broader society?

While in South Africa, King IV has now moved beyond ‘social & ethics committees’ as drivers for social responsibility and fair practice, and technology is overtaking traditional ways of communicating with employees and customers, all HRDs need to assess how leaders are preparing for the future.   Going beyond employee engagement surveys and elevating the debate, the All-Africa Conference on Employee Engagement will look at case studies from across the continent and provides a platform for professionals to share and connect on this new wave of opportunity for raising the sights of what doing ‘good business’ could mean.

The All-Africa Employee Engagement Indaba & Conference will be held in Johannesburg on 17-18 September.  Indaba Day is free to HR professionals. Register here