Based on Research By Scott Sonenshein

How Employees Shape The Companies That Help Reshape Society

  • Businesses are more proactive than ever about social issues like diversity, discrimination and the environment. To understand what they’re advocating—and why—start by studying their workers.
  • A wide range of employees now use work as a vehicle to advance social causes.
  • When they’re in the workplace, activists often describe their causes in economic terms.

Once only whispered about at the grassroots, the cause of equal rights for the LGBT community has vaulted to the executive suite.

The distance of that jump is striking. Ten years ago, many mainstream workplaces ignored or actively dismissed the experiences of their LGBT workers. Compare that to 2016, when North Carolina proposed a bill perceived to discriminate against the LGBT community—and firms including Dow Chemical, Hewlett Packard, and PepsiCo used their financial clout to fight it. State-sanctioned discrimination, they argued, would drive the nation’s most talented job candidates from North Carolina.

Did the CEOs come out swinging against prejudice because they discovered  it was the right thing to do? Probably not. Instead, their own employees increasingly made their values known, and swayed their leaders to act. What’s less clear is how they did it. While corporate leaders can direct company resources to promote and protect their causes, employees must be more resourceful to get their point across.

Scott Sonenshein, a professor at the business school, examined some of their strategies in a recent study of language and power in the workplace. Rather than mildly adopting the views of executives, Sonenshein found, employees consciously harness specific tools to change leaderships’ understanding of issues—while still preserving the firm’s core values.

Their main tool: “selling” their causes by framing them in new, work-friendly terms.

Sonenshein’s model lets researchers track an idea to see how its language and meaning shift as employees tailor it to resonate with decision makers. Take the example of a human resources manager who passionately believes her company should actively seek a diverse workforce because it would redress past discrimination. By the time she presents her idea to superiors, the HR chief likely will offer a different argument: hiring a diverse staff will create access to broader range of customers and potentially boost sales.

By “embellishing” some aspects of the issue and “subtracting” others, the manager has reframed—or, as Sonenshein puts it, “crafted”—the issue to gain better traction. In fact, even when an individual strongly believes a cause simply is “the right thing to do,” he or she still deploys economic embellishment to push the idea through the ranks, Sonenshein found.

Sonenshein’s model also shows how power affects the crafting process. When an individual worker engages in issue-crafting, Sonenshein found, it’s usually in response to explicit company values.  So in a company that prizes the bottom line above all else, workplace activists make a point to give justifications that support the company’s economic goals.

This effort is especially pronounced when advocates are trying to sell their idea upward in the ranks. Conversely, the crafting effort drops relative to the individual employee’s clout at work. In other words, the more power a worker has in an organization, the smaller the discrepancy between what he or she believes privately about an issue—and how he or she talks about it in public.

There’s plenty more research to be done, Sonenshein notes, especially about how crafting social issues at work affects individuals and the organizations themselves. What Sonenshein’s model offers is a framework for pursuing those questions—and insight into the way individual choices, language and status are shaping the firms that are reshaping society.

Scott Sonenshein is a professor of management in the business school at Rice University. He is the author of the newly released Stretch (HarperBusiness), which shows how businesses and individuals can thrive by doing more with less.

To learn more, please see: Sonenshein Scott, (2006). Crafting social issues at work. Academy of Management Journal, 49(6), 1158-1172.