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Brand Culture

Employee Activism Brings New Brand Challenges

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Amazon Employees for Climate Justice

A post on Medium from Amazon Employees for Climate Justice shares more than 350 statements from workers that focus on the company’s climate practices. The post comes weeks after allegations that Amazon threatened some employees with termination as they were in violation of policies on workers speaking to the press and media and is creating a public feud between management and an alliance of concerned employees.

Back in September, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced an initiative aimed at making the brand a net-zero carbon emitter by 2040. The day after the announcement, many Amazon employees joined the student-led climate marches that were happening around the world, but a group of employees feel Amazon isn’t doing enough.

Justin Wang, a software engineer says, “Every day at Amazon I work with incredible people on great projects, but I am weighed down by the knowledge that Amazon partners with the oil and gas industry despite its Climate Pledge. We must be climate leaders, not delayers.”

In an emailed statement from Amazon, a spokesperson says, “While all employees are welcome to engage constructively with any of the many teams inside Amazon that work on sustainability and other topics, we do enforce our external communications policy and will not allow employees to publicly disparage or misrepresent the company or the hard work of their colleagues who are developing solutions to these hard problems.”

This is just the latest in a series of events concerning big tech brands where employee activism has challenged internal brand and communication teams. Google backed out of a U.S. Defense Department drone program and decided not to bid on a contract to build cloud services for the Pentagon after workers raised concerns about bidding on military contracts. This $10 billion contract was won by Microsoft. And employees at both Microsoft and SalesForce put pressure on executives about their companies’ dealings with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Tolerance, Transparency And Trust

We’re living in strange times. We know there are problems like climate, immigration, guns and inequality that our governments have not been great at handling. We want to see action from brands that improve (or at least don’t make worse) the areas we care about. But the issues of our times are extremely complex. And trying to force leadership’s hands in terminating loyal customers by associating them with what seems to be unfavorable activities seems counter-intuitive for any employee wishing to grow with the brand.

A strong employee branding program can help. Provide internal mechanisms to collect feedback and use live or videocast town halls where leadership and experts can respond to questions live. Include a way to track progress and establish a cadence of communication so that groups know action is being taken, even if the action isn’t happening at a speed they’d like. Also, it’s time to revisit employee communication policies. Make it known what will be tolerated, and what will not.

This is one area where a strong executive presence can go a long way. Microsoft has done a superb job with this. Both the CEO and Chief Legal Counsel have written books and gone on speaking tours explaining the company’s position on technology and ethics. When confronted by the demands to sever contracts with ICE, Nadella was quick and clear in his response to employees.

But also, brands need to be unafraid to enforce policies. By all accounts, Amazon’s pledge is something to be admired. If it isn’t happening quickly enough for employees, they should feel empowered to work somewhere else.

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