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The rising power of workers

Abhijit Bhaduri | Updated on July 23, 2018 Published on July 18, 2018

Employees today are forcing employers to make ethical choices. Leaders have no option but to listen to them

When Air France decided in October 2015 to cut costs by $2 billion over two years, it did not anticipate the backlash. Hundreds of workers protested against the plans to cut almost 3,000 jobs and increase pilots’ working hours while reducing the size of the fleet. At some stage during the protest, the workers almost lynched two executives, including the HR manager. The empire struck back. Five of the offending protestors were identified by video footage and arrested.

Paid time off to protest

Cut to 2018. Some companies are now giving their employees paid time off to protest. Facebook not only allowed its employees to join “pro-immigration” protests, it “encouraged” its contractors to allow its security staff, janitors, shuttle-bus drivers to be free to join the protest without fear of retaliation. Facebook also said it will investigate if any of its vendors illegally crack down on their employees’ protest rights.

In a hyperconnected world, opinions can go viral in a matter of moments. When employees feel enraged, they no longer go to their manager and discuss their grievance. A single tweet can drop the market value of the company. Negative sentiments can go out of hand. This is a trend that will go mainstream everywhere. Leaders just have to learn to lead in this new setting.

The ultimate bargaining power

Project Maven, also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team, was launched in April 2017. The federal government wanted to use Artificial Intelligence to analyse predator drone videos. Video from unmanned aircraft is used to analyse military targets and battlefield data. It was a partnership between the government and the tech wizards of Silicon Valley. Google, Amazon and Microsoft all were part of the project. The 18-month contract for Google was to end in March 2019 and worth just $9 million.

In April 2018, some employees petitioned Google CEO Sundar Pichai urging him to drop out of the Pentagon project. Four thousand employees signed an open letter opposing Google’s collaboration with Pentagon. A dozen employees quit the company. It was the employee resignations that finally made Google’s leadership decide to drop the project whose value was expected to go up to $250 million. High end-specialised tech talent is scarce. Losing these valuable resources was not an option. The leadership of Google met and took a call at the end of May 2018. When the current contract expires in 2019, there will not be a follow-up contract. Additionally, Google will release a new document articulating the principles on the ethical uses of AI.

Et tu Microsoft

In June 2018, it was Microsoft’s turn to deal with the ire of employees. The root of the controversy was a blog post written in January 2018, in which Microsoft said it was offering cloud services to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and was “proud” of the work. Microsoft said that the services could “help employees (of ICE) make more informed decisions faster,” such as “enabling them to process data on edge devices or utilise deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.”

ICE agents were separating children from families at the border with Mexico. That caused a furore. Microsoft employees in an open letter urged the company to cancel the $19-million Azure contract with ICE because, “These are powerful capabilities, in the hands of an agency that has shown repeated willingness to enact inhumane and cruel policies.”

Making the CEO take sides

In the analog world, workers would make headlines when they wanted something for themselves. That could have been a pay rise or protesting poor working conditions. Ideological protests were few and far between. In the digital world, the influence of the expert talent goes beyond employee pay and benefits. It will be on ideological alignment. They will choose not to work on projects where they experience a values conflict. When organisations claim to be purpose-driven, this is the definition they have to keep in mind.

Tim Cook of Apple, Elon Musk of Tesla, Sundar Pichai of Google, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber and Chuck Robbins of Cisco also voiced their opposition to the immigration policy. And rightly so. Silicon Valley has always depended on skilled immigrants.

Last year, the National Foundation for American Policy released a study of the start-ups that were worth over a billion dollars. More than half had at least one founder who was an immigrant. When the authors expanded the search to senior, non-founding roles, that number rose to 71 per cent. Immigrants have started more than half (44 of 87) of America’s start-up companies valued at $1 billion or more and are key members of management or product development teams in over 70 per cent (62 of 87) of these companies. The collective value of the 44 immigrant-founded companies is $168 billion, which is close to half the value of the stock markets of Russia or Mexico.

Brand owners

Korn Ferry recently released a study aptly called The Salary Surge. Organisations around the world could add more than $2.515 trillion to their annual cost of labour by 2030, the result of a global shortage of highly skilled workers that could dramatically drive up salaries for the most in-demand labour. World economies could also fail to generate $8.452 trillion in annual revenue by 2030 due to talent shortages. The combined effect of these twin pressures could jeopardise profitability and threaten business models. This is the time when organisations must look at the power of talent to shape the business agenda and competitiveness.

Employers no longer own the brand. Leaders were just about starting to take the voice of the customer seriously. Now they have to also deal with the collective power of a hyperconnected world of workers. Employees are keen to force the employers to make ethical choices. Leaders have no choice but to follow the employees. This time they are leading.


Abhijit Bhaduri is a talent management advisor and coach to CEOs

Published on July 18, 2018
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