HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Q&A: Is Firing Employees Who Criticize Your Carbon Footprint a Good Idea?

As disasters like the wildfires in Australia fuel fears about climate change, some employees are taking action. Specifically, some have begun to criticize their own organizations for their heavy carbon footprint. This recently happened at Amazon, which seriously considered firing the two employees who spoke against it.

Source: DisobeyArt / shutterstock

I had a chance to speak to expert Greg Barnett, PhD, SVP of Science at the Predictive Index, concerning the situation.

HR Daily Advisor: Can you briefly explain what happened at Amazon concerning environmental activism?

Barnett: According to CNBC, Amazon recently threatened to fire two employees after they spoke out against the company’s increasing carbon footprint and environmental impact. The reason for the move to fire came from an internal communications policy that states employees must seek approval before talking about Amazon publicly when identified as Amazon employees. Amazon warned the two employees—both members of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group—that they could be terminated if they continue to speak out against Amazon.

HR Daily Advisor: How much of a threat is climate change criticism to large companies, especially those perceived to have done the most environmental harm?

Barnett: As the number of employees and consumers who are more aware of the social and environmental ramifications of climate change rises, so will the number of climate change criticisms. More and more social groups are calling upon companies to rethink their carbon footprint and reduce their emissions, as well as come up with business plans that address these issues. Climate change criticism is on the rise, as are companies with a need to do more than settle for their current programs. Those that do not keep pace with changing programs or look at their businesses from an environmental standpoint will face more climate change criticism. Hope is not lost, however; companies can mitigate some criticism by creating a culture of transparency in which leaders clearly communicate sustainability goals and challenges and employees feel safe to voice opinions in an appropriate fashion. Having this transparency allows for employees to feel as if they can communicate their hopes for more sustainable pushes and initiatives.

HR Daily Advisor: Is severe action like firing employees for speaking out a good idea?

Barnett: Employee activism often gets a lot of press and visibility, so the initial response from companies is typically to enter into crisis management mode and quell the outrage for the short term. Firing an employee who speaks out is an example of a crisis management mode response. A harsh action like this can stop any form of transparency culture that might have been building up over time. This will lead to employees who feel they cannot express their opinions and who fear being fired for having opinions about things they care about. This could also lead to toxicity in the culture, disengagement, and lost productivity. This works against companies that look to materially change their practices.

HR Daily Advisor: Are large companies making any progress when it comes to being more environmentally responsible?

Barnett: There are a few companies that have set environmentally conscious metrics for cutting down on their carbon emissions and rethinking different elements of their business. A good example in the aviation space is JetBlue, which announced it will offset up to 17 billion pounds of carbon a year and plans to start flying with sustainable aviation fuel on select flights by mid-2020. This is just one example, but many companies have started making progress toward more sustainable business operations.

HR Daily Advisor: What is the connection between employee branding and consumer branding in this context?

Barnett: For a brand, unhappy consumers can be detrimental to sales and brand image, but unhappy employees have the same power from the inside. As more employees equate company policies to overall company culture, companies that give employees the voice to raise social issues may actually help build a stronger workplace culture. Employees are linked to where they work, and as employees become more socially conscious, they move toward wanting their employees to reflect similar values.

HR Daily Advisor: Any suggestions for organizations that are looking to improve?

Barnett: Listen to your employees. We are entering the age of empowered employees—they are more socially conscious, socially aware, and cause-driven. By empowering your employees to have a voice, organizations can listen to where their concerns are. Organizations must build an open and transparent culture so employee activism fits into the way business gets done. In today’s world, employees are also consumers, and companies should think of their employees in this way. When consumers perceive a company’s misstep, it can lead to social media and news-driven backlash. This is happening with employees. When done in the right way, allowing employees to be empowered to raise their voice when it comes to social issues can be a positive thing for a company. By allowing employees to organize and show passion behind a topic, it may help build a stronger workplace culture. In fact, some employee protests, such as the Wayfair walkout, could have been prevented had leadership been more transparent about business practices upfront. It is important to allow employees to have their opinions heard and for leadership to respond and explain their reasoning and actions. There will be times when leaders feel the employee stance is wrong, but by building an open culture, leaders can address the concerns head on before it enters crisis mode.

HR Daily Advisor: Any final thoughts?

Barnett: Employee activism seems to be most prevalent in the tech industry today, and Amazon is a great example of that. Ultimately, this is because many tech companies build seemingly more progressive cultures that favor more collaborative leadership and cultural transparency, which is attractive to and retrofitting for the newer workforce. This contrasts with more traditional hierarchical organizations, where there are formal and informal rules of conduct that tend to keep activism under the surface. In addition, tech companies also tend to have an influx of younger talent who are used to advancements like social media as ways to mount protests, speak one’s mind, and create social change. Taken together, many tech industry companies build cultures that require open expression to succeed and have workforce populations that see this openness as a way to bring out positive change.

Employee activism is here to stay and will likely increase in the near future. Organizations are right to have policies about their employees’ expected behavior. These policies set the standard for appropriate behavior internally and externally. When employees work for an organization, they enter into an implied, or frequently formal, contractual relationship that defines appropriate behavior in exchange for pay. Some of this is about basics like attendance and performance, but it also includes not sharing trade secrets or doing other things that will hurt the company’s brand. Smart companies will build mechanisms to prevent public activism crises from occurring in the first place. It starts in the hiring process by identifying people who are not a good fit for the company’s culture, mission, and strategy. It continues by building a culture that allows for openness, discussion, and transparency around difficult issues. And it concludes with tough love. Employees aren’t always going to agree with their company’s leadership, but when dissent becomes toxic, organizations need to draw a line in the sand about when it’s gone too far. In some cases, they may lose valuable talent, but the costs of waiting for crises to occur will be much higher.