A Storm of Protest Is Coming to US Workplaces

By Mauricio (Reese) Ramos

The traditional U.S. workplace has changed. Decades back, if an employee disagreed with an organization's policy, the employer would point to the door and remind the worker that if they didn’t like it, they could work someplace else. If an employee wished there was a telecommuting option, or that a designated lactation space was available, or medical benefits for same-sex partners were offered, the response tended to unequivocally be, “You don’t like it here? There’s the door.”

Nowadays, when an employer disregards employee concerns, employees voice their dissension. If you’re an employer, and are seeing the signs but disregarding the message, you better start listening because there’s a storm brewing.  And this time, employees are demanding to be heard. If you fail to listen and change, you will lose high-performing employees, damage the reputation of your brand or organization, and ultimately risk compromising your organization’s mission due to the disruption caused by disgruntled employees.

Sometime in this new century something shifted in the relationship between employers and employees. I noticed it when I was with a certain organization. When I first joined, when the new hires had a specific concern, their concern was typically dismissed.  Management’s message was, in short, that new hires should learn the system and adapt to it.    

Today, that message doesn’t fly. Over time at this same organization, I found that when management would dismiss issues raised by new hires, the workers would (instead of shuffling in silence back to their cubicles) begin talking -- with each other, and with anyone who would listen. And here’s something they began doing that had not been done in decades -- they began to organize and approach leadership again with the same concern. This time though, they had more data, more statistics, and more voices joining them in the chorus of frustration. And then leadership began to listen.

Take, for example, some of the recent headlines from the tech sector over the past seven months:

  • Amazon Employees Protesting Sale of Facial Recognition Software (U.S. News & World Report, October 2018)
  • Google Employees Quit Over Controversial China Search Engine Project, Report Says (Fox News, October 2018)
  • Google Walkout: Employees Stage Protest Over Handling of Sexual Harassment (NY Times, November 2018)
  • Uber and Lyft Drivers Strike After Yet Another Uber Pay Cut (Forbes, March 2019)
  • Microsoft Employees Confront CEO Over Company’s Treatment of Women (The Guardian, April 2019)

What’s happened is that employees no longer see themselves as employees, but as partners who deserve to have a voice at the management table. They believe they should be a part of decisions that are made about how their work product is utilized. They want to see a cultural shift where employers won’t disregard their concerns about issues such as sexual harassment or demands for equal pay and benefits between contractors and employees. Charles Dickens, the Victorian author who often wrote about the working class’ plight, would be quite delighted at the wave of dissent being voiced by workers, especially across the tech sector. And if you think it is only tech workers voicing their opinion, don’t forget the recent teacher strikes in Oakland, Los Angeles Unified School District, and West Virginia.

So what do employers do now that the landscape has changed? What do they do now that employees demand a voice at the table and no longer accept ‘no’ for an answer?

In short, employers need to accept the new reality and begin to listen. The path to resolution always begins with people willing to listen to each other and to begin contemplating a new and different reality. This does not mean that employees will achieve every single item on their list of concerns, or that employers must cave into employees’ demands each and every time. As with all partnerships, the goal is to develop a working relationship where everyone feels appreciated, respected and overall, treated fairly.

If employers do not accept this new paradigm, the walkouts will continue. The confrontations will continue. Productivity will go down. Results will go down. It is time for all of us to listen to one another, to have a dialogue and, hopefully, seek solutions for a better workplace.

All of the organizations that have been in the news lately, to my knowledge, do not have an ombuds program. An ombuds program can be instrumental in helping employees feel listened to and that their concerns will be communicated to upper leadership. In short, an ombuds program could give workers a voice at the table.

Do you think the relationship between employers and employees is changing?

Do you think it is limited to only a specific sector?

Is the relationship changing globally too?

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Comments on "A Storm of Protest Is Coming to US Workplaces"

Comments 0-15 of 3

Reese Ramos - Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Thanks Ronnie and Ruthy. I'll look into publication outside of IOA, perhaps starting with The Ombuds Blog. -Reese

Ruthy Kohorn Rosenberg - Thursday, April 25, 2019

I agree with Ronnie that this might be suited for publication outside the IOA community. I see the same thing happening in the academic arena - staff are wanting to be seen as partners who bring valuable skills and experience that the academy needs and want to be treated as such. This is beginning to be understood.

Ronnie Thomson - Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Yes, the relationship is changing and Organizational Ombuds are uniquely positioned to assist organization's with this new paradigm. Seems like your blog might be well suited for publishing outside of the IOA community. Thanks, Reese!

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