Online activism in the workplace: how should employers respond?

According to a survey by Herbert Smith Freehills, strikes, whistleblowing and social media posts from employees criticising their own companies are set to rise. But what can employers do about it? Kate Palmer of Peninsula investigates.

Whisleblowing Social Online Activism

Activism in the workplace statistics

According to a study of 400 cross-sector ‘C-suites’ by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, workers are becoming more vocal in articulating their views about the workplace, their employer and wider social issues. Key findings from the survey reveal that in the next 3-5 years:

  • over 80% of companies predict a rise in workforce activism
  • respondents anticipate an increase in online digital petitions with 77% expecting to see more crowdfunded legal challenges
  • workforce activism could cost organisations up to 25% of global revenue each year

The survey also found that 95 per cent of companies expect a rise in the number of employees using social media, such as Twitter, to raise complaints and concerns about their company over the next five years. With that considerable percentage in mind, how can employers respond to online activism in their workplace? 

How should HR respond to online activism in the workplace?

The rise in usage of social media sites has undoubtedly led to a host of new concerns for employers. Where once workplace issues could be kept 'in house', staff now have a more significant platform to express their unfiltered views, which can help to facilitate employee activism.

The way employers respond to staff who choose to raise issues online will depend on several factors. Having a social media policy in place, for example, will help lay down ground rules on how employees ought to conduct themselves online, including the need to refrain from harmful or derogatory comments about the organisation.

If staff disobey the rules of this policy, then employers may choose to proceed with disciplinary action. However, this depends entirely on the nature of the employees' comments and will generally only apply if their remarks can be proven to be malicious and without foundation. Alternatively, employers may prefer to refrain from disciplinary action and instead hold 'clear the air' talks with the relevant individuals. 'Clear the air' talks could help resolve any underlying issues and prevent matters from getting out of hand. 

What are employees' whistleblowing rights in the workplace?

The situation will be different if an employee is using online platforms to make comments that qualify as protected disclosures, as this will be whistleblowing. For legal protections to apply for whistleblowing, as per the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, the employee must be in a reasonable belief that the organisation has acted unlawfully and that this information is genuinely in the public's interest. 

Employers ought to tread carefully here and consider if any complaints do qualify as a protected disclosure, as whistle-blowers are protected from detrimental treatment and may claim unfair dismissal if employers dismiss them for this reason (section 103A Employment Rights Act 1996). It does not necessarily even matter if the employee's complaint is correct, so long as they didn't make it in bad faith.

Employers must be alert to examples of online activism that are likely to qualify as protected disclosures. In these circumstances, employers must focus on resolving any issue without hesitation, while also encouraging staff to confide any concerns with the organisation directly in the future. 

About the author

Kate Palmer is Associate Director of Advisory at global employment law consultancy at Peninsula.

See also

What UK businesses need to know about records retention

What are the benefits of an employee assistance programme (EAP)?

Find out more

The New World of Work: Report Warns of An Unprecedented Rise in Workplace Activism (Herbert Smith Freehills)

Whistleblowing for employees (

Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (Legislation)

Employment Rights Act 1996 (Legislation)

Image: Getty Images

Publication date: 26 November 2019