Employers face many challenges when finding, managing and retaining talent. Lately the most urgent challenge has been coping with an angrier workforce.
According to an NPR/IBM Watson Survey, 84% of Americans say they are angrier than the previous generation. 42% of Americans say they are angrier IN THE LAST YEAR!
Perhaps a strong economy and historically low unemployment rate has given people more confidence to be honest about their feelings. But employee anger has created a whole new set of problems for employers beyond employee relations complaints. For example:
Wayfair, a company that sells furniture and household goods, recently was the target of an employee walk-out protest because it sold beds to the US government for use in immigrant detention centers. An employee in its accounting department noticed the sale of $200,000 in beds to a company linked to the US government and notified the press and other Wayfair employees. The CEO tried to tell his employees that the company is politically neutral, but the employees are demanding the cancellation of all sales that are ‘unethical’. There are no ethical rules in place now, so employees are demanding that management create a committee to make these rules.
Google employees learned of potential government contracts that would help the US government monitor terrorist activities while also screening and censoring private citizen activities. They demanded that Google decline this business and they were successful. Facebook employees are making similar demands for the company to limit its data collection on private citizens as well.
Google employees also successfully forced the company to stop its mandatory arbitration program. These programs were introduced 25 years ago by many companies to limit the cost of litigation. Now employees in Google and others who followed may sue companies more easily, resulting in higher legal and management time costs.
Women are more angry about the lack of management action for sexual harassment complaints and for management inaction in the PAST. The #MeToo movement, where women are encouraged to speak out about past incidents of sexual harassment that may not have been reported, has led to more complaints and lawsuits. Employers now need to defend themselves against complaints from incidents years ago, supported by little evidence or just the woman’s testimony. This was the case when Judge Bret Kavanaugh was proposed for the Supreme Court and was accused of sexual assault from a woman who had no other evidence but her own testimony. The woman claimed she was sexually assaulted over 30 years ago when the Judge was a student. Despite the lack of other evidence or witness testimony, the woman’s claim almost denied Judge Kavanaugh a seat on the Supreme Court.
Young people entering the work force are angrier and more demanding as well. Students at Oberlin College in Ohio demonstrated for the elimination of mid term exams and for a grading system with a MINIMUM grad of “C” or “passing”. You can imagine how they will feel about performance evaluations when they join companies.
Students at a San Francisco high school demanded that a mural painted in 1936 showing George Washington overseeing his slaves at Mt. Vernon and soldiers walking past a dead Native American Indian had to be destroyed because it ‘threatened’ them. Students around the country are working with college administrators to create “safe zones” where students will not be subjected to hate speech or micro aggressions. What are examples of this? Hate speech can be using the wrong pronoun to address a transgender person. (for example, if a male becomes a female, you cannot refer to that person as a ‘he’. In fact, most transgenders prefer the pronouns ‘they or them’.) A micro aggression can happen if someone uses the term ‘melting pot’ to describe American society. People of color feel melting pot disrespects their identity and forces them to conform to a white culture.
Human resources professionals, particularly those in employee relations, need to be trained more thoroughly on harassment and diversity sensitivity or risk numerous employee complaints, lawsuits or negative publicity. Companies have to be more conscious of who has access to sensitive information, including not just company secrets but customer lists as well.
There is no indication that this is a short-term situation. The Presidential election cycle, which started 2 months earlier than 2016 with the Democratic debates, will make politics a central discussion topic through the election of November of 2020. Regardless of who wins, employees who supported the losing candidate will be very angry at the result and the workforce will remain divided.
Companies will need to clarify their culture and values and institute training and policies to deal with employees who go beyond normal grievances and sabotage operations in the name of social justice. It’s more important than ever not to just hire the most qualified person but to find someone with high character who is the best fit for the company culture. The best way to start is to interview trusted employees who have been good performers in the past and who have respected the corporate culture and find characteristics to use when screening new applicants.