When 100 workers stormed a senior board meeting at the Paris headquarters of the airline Air France last October to protest about a redundancy programme, managers were forced to flee the building. One climbed over a wire fence and lost his shirt, another security worker was knocked unconscious. The pictures taken of the managers as they fled the scene were deeply humiliating for the company, yet Xavier Broseta, the airline’s vice president for human resources, said that the violent action was “the price to pay for democracy”. While appearing to take a tolerant view of this exhibition of employee activism, he also asserted that the action was “not acceptable”.

Companies are being stormed in different ways all over the world by employees who regard company directors, their assets and their business relationships as a new vulnerability. The employee activists range from those with a personal grievance, to union protesters over pay and conditions, environmentalists attacking company practice and anarchists bearing a wider grudge against capitalism itself.

Many protesters elicit widespread sympathy. Take for example the Indian employees engaged in activism against company managers who had ignored their complaints about sexual harassment and the treatment of women in the workplace. They occupied their factories, in part in response to wider instances of women being harassed on Indian public transport. Tony Khindria, the senior partner of Lexindia, a law firm, in Delhi, says that the Indian government responded to widespread anger. “They have required companies to create committees to hear the complaints and experiences of employees facing sexual harassment. In this case, their activism has certainly had a very productive result.”

Corporate vulnerability

Employee campaigns tend to work from inside the company and many employees – such as those in France mentioned above – know the logistics of the company, such as the entry points to a meeting. This makes them peculiarly irritating and even effective.

US employees were clearly conscious of a corporate vulnerability when they harnessed customers at Walmart stores to their pay campaign.

Customers were invited to load up their trolleys and appear to be going about their normal shopping. But after they passed the supermarket checkout they refused to pay and the store was required to return all the goods to the shelves. This threw the company’s billing systems into disarray. Management was instantly put on the alert.

Some British employees sneaked into the Annual General Meeting of an oil company that employed them. Worse still, a number came dressed as black rats to catch the attention of the media and horrify executives. The use of a disguise ensured that the employees were not recognised. The following day, the same group of workers, coordinated by social media, unexpectedly locked the company’s gates, bringing a halt to the day’s work. Workers dressed as rats even besieged some directors’ houses.

This sort of destructive action is likely to grow as many governments in the West tighten up their law to make industrial action by organised groups more difficult. Ed Goodwyn, a partner of UK law firm Pinsent Masons says: “We expect there to be an increase in wildcat action where disgruntled workers, without the union, go of and lock the gates, or have a protest. That is unlawful but it is very diffilt for the employer to take action. If the activists are a trade union, the company can sue or take out an injunction. But when it is a bunch of unknown people, who do you take to court?”

Tread carefully

The corporate is bound to respond to these assaults on its business and reputation. But it must do so very judiciously says Naeema Choudry, a partner at global law firm Eversheds. She advises employers to treat activists very carefully when they pursue their cases in a court. “The employee can make the workplace very awkward if your fellow employees are bringing evidence against him. The line manager is having to manage someone who is bringing a claim. He is bound to worry what he does in case it could be misconstrued as victimisation.”

In fact employees are getting greater protection from the law as courts have decided that employers cannot take disciplinary action against an employee just because he has a deep-seated belief in something that is worth respecting in a democratic society. That belief must also be compatible with human dignity. Lawyers assess that judgements of this sort are likely to be adopted elsewhere.

Powerful advocates

The efforts of activists can be countered by on-line advocacy of powerful corporate values, says Leslie Gaines-Ross of Shandwick Webber, the US-based PR group. “Employees know more about the company than everybody else, so if they are advocating its values, they are more likely to be persuasive.”

The website glassdoor.com, the comparison website for employees seeking to obtain information about possible employers, is a place where activists seek to damage a company’s reputation. She adds: “These employee activists can communicate their enthusiasm for their company on glassdoor.com to counter the hostility.”

Nick Kochan

Nick Kochan is a financial journalist based in London. He writes regularly for the Banker, the Economist and the Financial Times

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