Employee activism on the rise: How to react.

U.S. employers are facing a new age of employee activism as workers in all sizes of companies--both union and nonunion--challenge their employers on social, cultural and moral issues.

The protests and walkouts of the past were typically about wages and working conditions, and were centered in large unionized locations. The new employee activism is mostly by nonunion workers pushing their employers to be better corporate citizens.

"We have a generation entering the workforce with a heightened focus on social justice and the environment, at a time when communication technology facilitates collective action like never before," says David Rittof, an employee relations expert and president of Modern Management.

Examples: Wayfair workers protested the company's involvement with border detention facilities. Employees at the maker of "Call of Duty" video games walked out over the treatment of women at the office.

Fueling this trend: The tight labor market is giving workers more leverage. Plus, the pandemic downtime caused many workers to reexamine their career choices, and they want to work for companies more aligned with their values.

Group activism will grab more headlines and can harm your production schedules and productivity. But even one individual employee speaking out--often in the media or on social media--can wreak havoc on your organization's public image, and it will require a smart response.

Whether solo or in a group, such walkouts, public demonstrations and social media posts are typically considered "protected concerted activity" under federal labor law, even if you're a nonunion organization.

That means it is unlawful to retaliate in any way against such activist workers. Firing them, threatening their jobs or telling them to keep quiet could be found to be an unfair labor practice in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

How to respond: To survive an activist workforce, employers need to listen to employee concerns and respond thoughtfully. Also, be ready to take a public stance on big social issues, but not without a plan (see box).

When it comes to addressing specific employee protests, Rittof...

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