Conform or Rebel? Consider This Before Joining a Company Protest

A recent wave of dissent has rocked the formerly quiet offices of some Silicon Valley tech companies. Specifically, employees from Microsoft, Amazon and Salesforce have circulated petitions urging their CEOs to cancel or rethink lucrative government contracts. A group of engineers at Google even refused to build a security tool for “Project Maven,” a Pentagon contract.

But is rebelling really the way to go? Could you be disciplined or fired for refusing to work on a project you object to on moral grounds? What will your peers think? Here’s a look at what you should know and consider before joining an office uprising.

Weigh Risk vs. Reward

Since voicing your opinion may impact your career, reputation or livelihood, the first thing you need to consider is the importance of the issue to you. Remember, the First Amendment’s parameters do not apply to private-sector employers.

For example, protesting at work is not the same as whistleblowing; you could be fired for being oppositional or refusing to keep quiet and go back to work, explained Paula Brantner, a former employment attorney and senior advisor to Workplace Fairness.

“There aren’t a lot of legal protections for employees who refuse to complete tasks or assignments, as long as the work is legal,” Brantner noted.

Conduct a personal risk assessment and evaluate the consequences to decide if taking a stand against your company’s business practices is truly worth it.

The Downside of ‘Taking it Outside’

You should certainly think twice before sharing your opinion in the news or on social media, even if you do so on your own time. Many employers have policies that limit what employees can say or do in public, and any violation is grounds for immediate termination. Even if your company doesn’t have a written policy, you could still be in hot water for going public with a controversial view.

“In certain states, employers can take action against employees whose off-duty conduct or speech impacts the employer’s relationships with customers,” advised Ellen Storch, partner and employment law attorney with Kaufman Dolowich Voluck LLP.

If these companies can show that they are losing business because of the negative press, they may be able to terminate employees who participate in the protests, depending upon where those employees live, she added.

While today’s market favors tech job hunters, the dampening of the current business cycle could shift supply and demand. You may have trouble finding another job if you earn a reputation for being a rabble-rouser or malcontent.

However, if you feel strongly about your company’s business practices, or you’re experiencing an internal conflict between your personal values and those of your company, there may be a safer, more effective way to voice your opinion.

There’s (Some) Safety in Numbers

Leading a workplace revolt can put you in a risky or difficult position. Reduce the hazards and acquire power by engendering support from your co-workers for your agenda. There’s power in banding together as a group.

Remember, your peers may not share your views; furthermore, engaging in actions that alienate one of your company’s major clients can have a serious ripple effect with potentially unforeseen consequences. For example, a subsequent decline in sales and profits could have a negative impact on stock prices, raises and bonuses—and may even lead to layoffs. In other words, you may pay dearly for taking an unpopular stand.

If you manage to build a coalition, try sharing your group’s request or petition internally first, either through an email, employee roundtable/town hall or letter to the executive management team. Alternatively, ask for a slot on the agenda of an upcoming management meeting to express your concerns. It’s always a good idea to give your immediate manager a heads-up before going over their head to more senior leadership.

Of course, language and framing matters when making requests at work. Management may be more willing to consider your recommendation if you demonstrate that a specific business practice or client contract opposes the company’s stated moral and ethical values, Brantner noted. That positioning may get you further than simply framing a policy as something you don’t personally like.

“It’s hard for management to justify something that conflicts with the company’s culture, or breaks promises made to employees,” she said.

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