The Wayfair Walkout’s Reminders: Employees are not Owned or Paid Media, and Their Advocacy is a Two-Way Street

By | July 1, 2019

Employee advocacy is a popular topic among executives and communications leaders alike. The increased recognition that employees are a powerful force in shaping conversations about your brand, and ultimately a huge factor in your reputation, has created a wave of initiatives and campaigns designed to unlock the potential of employees as advocates.

In many industries, restrictive social media policies that discouraged employees from sharing their experiences are being replaced with programs designed to encourage employee storytelling. As a brand’s employer reputation continues to climb the ladder of priorities for CorpSumers – consumers who make purchasing and advocacy decisions on factors other than price and product attribute – who is better than actual employees to provide the “real deal” on an employer brand? And in their day-to-day work life, they are telling your story through words and serving as the only singular touchpoint to all of your key stakeholders.

But what happens when Employee Advocacy takes a turn against you, as the employer? What began as the “rogue acts” of an outlier – quitting via op-ed and outing the toxic culture of an investment bank or sharing the tale of woe of attempting to live on an entry level tech salary in San Francisco – has become a full-fledged movement. Today’s employees are scrutinizing the business decisions of their employers and expressing their approval and disapproval in equal measure.

It isn’t just brands taking a stand. Employees are taking a stand. And they are having an impact.

McKinsey has resigned its contract with ICE over employee backlash. Google employees walked out over the tech giant’s handling (or mishandling) of harassment issues. Microsoft, McDonalds, Amazon, and now Wayfair.  Let’s be clear, employee protests are nothing new. The entire system of protesting is the foundation of the organized labor ecosystem. But what is different now is that employees aren’t only protesting things that directly impact them like pay or working conditions. They are protesting business decisions that do not align with their values, even if they are not directly involved. And they are doing it publicly, violating the traditional, unspoken rule that you keep your complaints “inside the family.”

Companies that treat employee advocacy as owned or paid media do so at their own peril.  You get the advocacy you earn….even if it is advocating against you. This shift toward a “values economy” is a tough one for American companies, whose stated purpose for decades has always centered around pursuit of profits in service to shareholders. Profit is no longer the purpose, it is the outcome.

In most of these cases, employees have taken their cases public as a last resort. They’ve provided feedback, circulated petitions, confronted management. In other words, they tried to keep it “in the family” but were not satisfied with the response. So, they take it public.

Until now, the “purpose priority” of employees has manifested as an opportunity for employers to win the war for talent and earn consumer loyalty. But the message here is clear – acting with purpose and integrity (vs. simply having a purpose) is not optional. And when employees try to tell you something…listen.Wayfair

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