In a recent conversation with corporate leaders and academics, we discussed the new employee activism. This convening was to provide context for our next special Edelman Trust Barometer, which will probe the new compact between Employer and Employee. Here are a few key insights from the discussion:

  1. The Employee Groups, Millennials and Gen Z A Force of Change — The voice of the employee is being elevated in racial, ethnic and gender cohorts, as well as by Millennials and Gen Z. In this past year alone, employee resource groups have played a transformational role across industries and corporations of all sizes. The question now is how to build trust across these verticals and generations. Part of it must be enabling constructive challenging of the company agenda on matters of shared import. Another is inviting employee groups to the table – listening to employee perspectives to help shape company policy, but being careful not to put the responsibility on them to solve the company’s problems.
  2. Culture Change, not Talking Points — Companies need new behaviors, not just more frequent communications. No longer can policy be driven exclusively by senior partners or management. There are new expectations of leaders; employees will not tolerate behavior that differs from the stated commitment to progress on treatment of women in the workplace or prioritization of diversity, equity and inclusion. Present leaders grew up in a top-down world. Now they need to listen, advise and co-create with employees on next steps.
  3. Employee Dissatisfaction Not Just For the Young — Points to Massive Future Turnover — One-third of employees say that they are open to job change in the coming months, a very sour outcome from the pandemic. All age groups are ready to move, not just younger employees.
  4. Employee Satisfaction Declines With Tenure — In one-third of the employee population, trust in the company decreases with seniority. Business is good at onboarding, but much less at career planning, retention, listening and living up to its own self-hype.
  5. Management Still Based on Timeworn Efficiency Models — The essence of American business theory is Taylorism, to generate maximum efficiency from the workforce via time and movement studies. This has morphed into human relations over the past 100 years. But the new employee expects to be partner, not piece worker. And they see their employer as an extension of their identity and a core community, not just a paycheck.
  6. Return to Workplace Is Fraught — People of color are reluctant to re-enter work environments where they repeatedly faced microaggressions. Parents will want solutions to challenges of childcare as part of a flexible workplace. And the rise of the Delta variant has thrown the best-laid return-to-work plans into question. We can’t think of return to work as a return to normal — what was isn’t what works.
  7. Art of Employee Dialogue Revisited —The new employee activism has the potential to achieve genuine, positive societal change—and the potential to deepen existing societal rifts. Companies are experimenting with forums, with set norms, to talk through issues like voting rights and critical race theory. We must find ways to work across communities, countries with different political systems (or even regions of a country such as the US), with a focus on common purpose and values.
  8. Importance of Employee Citizenship —There is a desperate need for civics and citizenship guidance that defines the new rules of the road for the newly empowered employee. Employers must correspondingly support employees to be more active in their communities, funding participation on non-profit boards or donations to community groups.

The upcoming Edelman Trust study seeks to answer the fundamental question of what matters most to the Empowered Employee. Becky Frankiewicz, ceo of Manpower US, told me that wages are no longer the primary motivator for employee retention. The new compact requires workplace flexibility, a voice in company policy and a sense of higher purpose. It will also demand re-training and upskilling to cope with the rapid onset of automation. Two-thirds of employees and two-thirds of consumers told us that they believe that they can change company or brand policy; they are the new super-powers in corporate governance.

Richard Edelman is CEO.