Employee activism is alive and well—are you prepared for a strike?

by | Oct 14, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

The strike by General Motors workers will be over sooner or later and business will return to normal—sort of. Even if your company doesn’t expect to experience a strike because it’s not “organized,” think again! Recent incidents of employee activism and walkouts for events like Global Climate Strike or Day Without Immigrants at companies that aren’t organized can have similar effects.

The truce has been broken

How management responds and interacts with its employees after a strike or unauthorized walkout can have lasting effects on future morale and productivity. Since most companies aren’t organized, the following is primarily directed to these organizations. However, many of the same tips are applicable after a strike.

After a walkout, will management be seen as a fiefdom going forward, compared to the one that once said it was inclusive, inviting and open? Or will it continue to pursue the same earlier values? If so, how?

The forecast for tomorrow is…

If the relationship between management and employees has been open and healthy, chances are you, as a leader, were aware of the walkout before it occurred. If you had no clue it was going to happen, you’re way overdue for an audit of management practices and internal communication.

Even if you knew in advance that there would be a walkout, the relationship between workers and their immediate supervisors can be, at a minimum, sensitive afterwards. Feelings of responsibility and trust are often affected—not to mention productivity goals.

The $64,000 Question

Assuming you knew in advance that your employees were going to walk out or not show up for work and join some sort of protest, plan ahead. You should already have emergency plans for the resumption or continuation of operations in the wake of a major disaster or catastrophe. How might these plans fit or be adjusted in the event of a walkout?

Whether you were aware in advance of the walkout or not, refrain from taking or threatening to exercise any disciplinary action unless you’ve already talked with your legal counsel. Discuss and weigh the potential internal and external ramifications of any actions with your PR and HR teams.

If the walkout was brief, like a day or less, and also happens to align with corporate values, consider allowing employees to use their vacation or personal leave time to avoid being docked without pay. This can be invaluable and may even boost your standing, not just among employees, but also your other publics.


Some companies that have experienced unauthorized walkouts, especially if they relate to immigration, subject returning employees to submit new I-9s, a verification that they’re eligible to work in the U.S. Reject any such ideas. Any I-9 should have been completed at the initial job interview and would not only raise serious legal, but also PR and reputation issues for your company.

Also be aware that some states also have laws that prohibit employers from docking employees for off-site activities done on the employee’s own time as well as other free speech protections. So even if your employee engages in actions that are in conflict with company values, be extra careful before considering any action.


Maintaining frequent and open communication will be more important than before. Be clear in your expectation of employee production while respecting their rights of free speech and open assembly.

Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian founded 5WPR, a leading PR agency..


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