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Employee activism is the latest pressure point for companies when thinking about their reputation

Employee activism is the latest pressure point for companies when thinking about their reputation.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Co has been in the spotlight this week when outraged employees called for an end to the company’s work with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), following a New York Times expose into its work. Kevin Sneader, the company’s new MD, stated that McKinsey “will not, under any circumstances, engage in any work, anywhere in the world, that advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values.” This follows a small (750) but vocal group of Deloitte’s 260,000 employees signing a petition in response to ICE agents removing children from their parents when the parents were arrested for allegedly entering the United States illegally.


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An employee revolt in June forced Google to back off a potentially lucrative military drone project. It is part of a broader trend when employees use social media to pressurise the companies they work for to take sometimes highly political stances on causes they care about.  Employees have affected change at Nike who slashed links with Bangladesh suppliers when lobbied by employees on unsafe working conditions.

Impact? Internal dissent used to be kept behind closed doors. Now employees are becoming increasingly publicly vocal, maybe because they sense their voices are not being internally heeded. Perhaps they are more confident using new media channels, and less fearful of career fall-out if they make their voices heard.

In his sweeping statement, however, McKinsey’s chief may have created a hostage to fortune. If you take his argument literally, the consulting firm will now only work with organisations that advance the exact same values as they do. Who is to say that McKinsey’s values are the last word, and why are other values more or less laudable than their own?  McKinsey’s values are numerous and some are possibly not values at all but simply the outcomes of business processes. Is ‘Improve our clients’ performance significantly’ a value or simply an aspiration to do a good job, reduced to a marketing slogan? One assumes that very few companies set out to do a bad job, so this doesn’t genuinely set them apart or inform what it is that they value.

Their first value ‘put client interests ahead of the firm’s’, raises extraordinary practical challenges: presumably McKinsey from now on will need to continually cross- check clients’ plans against its own values structure for alignment before taking on the business. A complex values structure – or perhaps one which is ill-defined – is a practical obstacle because the test then becomes simply paying lip-service, leaving you open to push back from employees and others.

What can organisations do better? Good employers should ensure the basics of employee engagement are in place – great internal communications coupled with solid HR policies.  A clear set of values and purpose should stem from the company’s culture and strategy. Employees should have a strong idea of where the company stands on major issues, with, ideally, a ‘social CEO’. But this doesn’t mean advocating a totalitarian set of messages and group think. Businesses need to be able to be “big enough” to have the space and openness within to be able to accommodate these kinds of discussions in the awareness that they’ll inevitably seep out. Workers have found their voices and the days of quiet acquiescence are in the past.