Monday, January 16, 2023

Wait, Our Employees Can Also Use Us Politically? Political Activism in Firms

We already know about CEOs making political statements using their firm as a tool – such as leaving California while protesting taxes and regulation, or publicly announcing that they will cover travel expenses for abortions for their employees in abortion-banning states. There is debate over how much CEOs should engage in political debates and use their firms to make statements. But what about employees? Of course, anyone is free to act politically outside work, but it is also possible to use the firm as a tool for public protest.

Research by Alexandra Rheinhardt, Forrest Briscoe, and Aparna Joshi published in Administrative Science Quarterly asks when employees are more likely to use their organization as a tool for making political statements. It focuses on a public protest – the “Take a Knee” movement of players in the NFL (National Football League) kneeling or showing other kinds of protest during the pre-game play of the national anthem. It is a remarkably visible protest because of the TV broadcast of the event, the symbolism of the national anthem, and the clearly visible team uniforms.

Some politicians, some team owners, and some audience members were aghast when this movement began – and many others were delighted. As any real form of protest should be, it was controversial, and it was also a powerful ingredient of the Black Lives Matter movement to protest racism and police violence. But what made some players in some teams join the movement, while others did not? The research found two factors that made the players more likely to use their team as a tool for public protest.

The first was fairness – teams treating their players equally, as expressed through similar pay levels, were more likely to see players emboldened and making protests. Keep in mind that these were protests not against the team, but using the team colors, and they were protests for fairness in society. This makes sense.

The second was openness – teams that were open to the message of the movement, as expressed through having a greater proportion of black players, were more likely to see their players protest. Again, this action is part of the Black Lives Matter movement, so it matters that a team does not specifically favor white players through its recruitment. This makes sense too.

Both fairness and openness made individual players more likely to protest before a game, and it added up to making at least one player in the team, usually multiple, more likely to protest too. This brings us back to what happens when employees use the firm as a tool for public protest. Of course, it is a worthy effort for the employees, who feel strongly about the issue and want to express their views as publicly as possible. But should managers and owners be worried?

That brings us to the last part of the story. Another item predicting protests was that the teams were in more liberal communities – communities that generally agreed with the Black Lives Movement and would likely react positively to players protesting on its behalf. At least in this context, one could argue that the player, by taking an overall controversial stance, brought the team closer to its community. For a move that received so much public attention – even with the president at the time (who has no particular authority on football team hiring decisions) telling teams to fire the protesters – this is an unusually happy ending.

Rheinhardt, A., F. Briscoe, and A. Joshi. 2023 "Organization-as-Platform Activism: Theory and Evidence from the National Football League “Take a Knee” Movement." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.