How to protest your company — and keep your job

CNN Business - Kathryn Vasel
July 8, 2019

A recent wave of protests has made it clear that employees are paying more attention to their employers’ actions particularly younger workers.

“The Millennial generation are more activists and socially conscious and they have higher expectations of the employers they work for,” said Lori Deem, employment lawyer and partner at Outten & Golden.

Employees at online home goods retailer Wayfair in Boston  walked out last month  after the company  sold bedroom furniture  to a nonprofit that operates migrant detention facilities.

Last year, Google  employees across the globe  protested the tech giant’s handling of sexual harassment and discrimination allegations in the workplace. In response to the protests,  the company made changes  to its harassment and assault policies.

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But speaking up can also land you in trouble or even get you fired.

Do your research before you sign on

Before you accept a job, know the company’s mission, values and culture to help avoid any surprises down the road.

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Once you join, get a sense of the culture, recommended Deem. “Are you in an environment that is open to advocacy or honesty about your disagreement or are you in an environment that discourages that?”

Know your rights

Employees that take a stand have some legal protections.

Workers can engage in what’s referred to as protected concerted activity that prevents them from being retaliated against, disciplined or fired, according to Deem. For instance, employees acting together to improve compensation issues or work conditions would be safeguarded.

Whistleblower laws also prevent employers from retaliating against workers who report violations of workplace safety and other laws.

Speaking out against your employer is protected by the First Amendment for workers in the public sector, but those protections don’t cover private sector employees.

“In a private entity, you don’t necessarily have the same unfettered right to speech,” said Deem.

Look for an internal outlet

Many companies have a conduit like a hotline, ethics officer or a part of the human resources department that is set up to address complaints and concerns, so check your employee handbook or consult your HR department if you want to bring up a grievance. Keep in mind that  HR tends to play dual roles  of protecting the company as well as employees.

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Get organized

There is some safety in numbers when it comes to speaking up.

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Keep your emotions in check

If you don’t agree with something your employer is doing, stay levelheaded and avoid knee-jerk reactions like social media posts. While taking your concerns online can be a quick way to get your message out to the public, it can result in termination.

“If you are bashing your company publicly, most employers are at will, and don’t have to continue employment if they don’t like that kind of thing,” said Deem.