IT seems every day on social media, TV or other news streams that almost everyone has an opinion about a cause close to their heart. Recent research from Weber Shandwick suggests more and more employees are speaking up about their employer’s policies or wider business decisions. But when does employee activism become a legal issue?

Recent examples of employee activism include Wayfair staff in the U.S.A. Wayfair supplies furnishings. Some of its staff walked out when they heard their employer may have supplied items to a government contractor thought to be equipping migrant detention centres in Texas. Additionally staff handed in a petition urging the company not to prop up business supporting detention camps. Other examples of employee activism include staff voting with their feet, going absent without authorisation, when their employer paid severance to someone accused of sexual misconduct.

Employee activism goes well beyond unionised working environments. The recent report suggested almost 85 per cent of workers surveyed believe they are right to come out in support of, or against, their employer depending on the issue.

That being the case, employers might wish to consider what might be gained from noticing activism amongst staff. If nothing else, it can be useful to be aware of what staff views are.

Most employers will be familiar with the idea of staff surveys. Surveys are usually focussed on internal issues such as how staff feel about their work or their working environment. Fewer surveys would ask whether staff wished to influence policies or what changes they might actually be looking for.

Speaking up on controversial topics isn’t risk free. Tribunal cases prove employees have been dismissed for expressing particular views. Dismissals have been held to be fair in some cases and not in others depending on who started the conversation and whether the employee was asked for their view or not. Sometimes an employee’s view flagrantly will go against the employer’s ethics and mission.

Legal protections also exist to protect whistle-blowers, but how does a manager know what views are protected in law and which warrant disciplinary action? In some cases an employer may face the prospect of paying large sums of compensation to employees who have blown the whistle or suffered discrimination for their beliefs.

Although most employers won’t experience employee activism on the Wayfair scale, they are less likely to have the resources to handle poor PR or pay compensation. Preventing disputes is always better than cure. Proactive employers may stay up to date through staff forums, providing training so managers can discern between legitimate grievances and disciplinary issues and of course taking prompt advice when sensitive issues arise.

For further help or advice, contact Employment Law Senior Associate, Alex Evans, on 01904 611411 or