Rise of employee and investor activism - Activate World

Rise of employee and investor activism


Google and Microsoft employees continue to publicly question their employers’ business decisions, oppose government contracts or raise broader moral questions about workplace policies. Highlighting another important issue, activist investor group Arjuna Capital is pushing companies to back up their claims of gender pay equity with supporting data. 

Google said it would end forced arbitration and allow employees to sue the company over discrimination or wrongful termination, or participation in class-action suits. In November, Google waived mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment and assault claims. The latest action is an expansion of that policy allowing current employees to move past claims from arbitration to court. Employment lawyers say sexual harassment and discrimination claims are typically filed together. Class action suits have a long history of progressive change such as reducing sexual harassment on Wall Street. 

These policy changes were driven by ongoing employee protests such as the walkout of 20,000 Google employees last November in protest of the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment cases. The most recent change comes days before a group of Google employees will accompany lawmakers as they introduce house and senate bills to end forced arbitration for all workers.

At Microsoft, a group of 50 anonymous workers are again calling for the company to end a U.S. military contract, saying they never signed up to develop weapons and demand a say in how their work is used. Microsoft has publicly said it will continue doing work for the U.S. government, including the armed forces. 

In a letter signed as “Microsoft workers,” the company’s HoloLens mixed reality headset is called out as crossing the line into weapons development. “The application of HoloLens within the Integrated Visual Augmentation System is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield and works by turning warfare into a simulated “video game,” further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.”

The letter emphasizes that many engineers contributed to HoloLens before the contract even existed, “believing it would be used to help architects and engineers build buildings and cars, to help teach people how to perform surgery or play the piano, to push the boundaries of gaming, and to connect with the Mars Rover (RIP).” The workers lament that Microsoft engineers have apparently lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on and find themselves implicated as war profiteers.

Arjuna Capital recently announced a median pay gap shareholder resolution engaging a dozen major U.S. companies across the banking, tech, and retail sectors, including: Adobe, Amazon, Intel, Facebook, Alphabet/Google, Bank of New York Mellon, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, AmEx, JPMorgan Chase, and Mastercard. The 12th company Arjuna Capital targeted with the shareholder proposal—Citigroup—responded almost immediately, disclosing its median pay gap data through a blog, and pledging to narrow it. On Jan. 16, 2019, Citi became the first US company to reveal its global median pay gap is 29 percent.

Equal pay gaps measure whether women are being paid commensurate with their peers for their work, and median pay gaps measure whether or not women are holding as many high-paying jobs as men. Reducing the median pay gap means that more women are in leadership roles (and reaping the performance benefits that diversity affords). Investors and concerned shareholders in major U.S. financial and tech companies want to make sure the pay gap difference is highlighted in order to bring about faster parity.

Read Jon Mertz’s article, with employee activism on the rise: what’s a CEO to do?, recently published in Conscious Company.


  • According to Wired, the #MeToo movement brought mandatory arbitration under public scrutiny, as one of a group of legal agreements, such as non-disparagement clauses, that hurt victims of sexual harassment while protecting predators.
  • Bloomberg reported that the nearly $480 million contract could eventually lead the military to buy more than 100,000 headsets from Microsoft. 
  • As data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows, the gender-pay gap is decades away from closing for white women, a hundred-plus years from closing for black women and 200-plus years away from closing for Latina women.

Quest and Actions (Q&A)

  • How can business leaders create forums where employees can raise their viewpoints, feel they are listened to and receive follow-up explaining why certain things can or cannot happen?
  • In December, Salesforce announced a “chief ethical and humane use officer” whose job is “to develop a strategic framework for the ethical and humane use of technology across Salesforce,” according to a news release. How would you see this role working with other key functions?
  • To highlight the problem and spur action should the federal government require companies to disclose data on median gender wage gaps as the UK mandated in 2017? Does your company have a gender wage gap?

Sources:  Axios,Quartz,TriplePundit,Wired

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash