Workers Are Speaking. Are Business Leaders Listening? 

November 10, 2021
By Elisabeth Hershman
Two small figures with megaphones opposed by a giant hand, suggesting a power struggle or protest.

A tight labor market and the lingering effects of the pandemic have contributed to a wave of labor unrest across the country in industries as varied as healthcare, education and consumer packaged goods. After years of being told they’re the company’s most valuable asset, employees are beginning to flex their muscles and test the limits of that statement.

The labor shortage is acute and shows no sign of abating. The threat of COVID still looms, childcare options are inadequate and many people are making wholesale lifestyle changes either by choice or because of their circumstances. This is especially the case if their employer is requiring them to return to the office.

For those still working, the labor shortage has led to oppressive overtime requirements and dangerous working conditions and plummeting morale. Meanwhile, ballooning corporate profits and record executive compensation contrast sharply with the worker’s experience of stagnating wages and inflation.


"After years of being told they’re the company’s most valuable asset, employees are beginning to flex their muscles and test the limits of that statement."


In response to all this, workers are striking at major corporations and placing increasing demands on management at small and midsize organizations. Even in white-collar businesses, employees are holding their employers accountable to ethical standards that go beyond delivering a good or service.

C-level executives must meet this moment and shore up trust so that their organization emerges from this period stronger than before. Here’s how:


Align profits and actions with core values

Employees, customers, and shareholders alike expect business leaders to make good decisions that contribute to a sustainable long-term strategy and leave the society and the environment in better shape than they found it. Short-term profit taken at the expense of values will not be celebrated. Rather, actions that align performance with organizational purpose and values will be seen as authentic and worthy of trust and support.


Prioritize communications with employees

Frequent, open communication with employees demonstrates fairness and respect. Every major decision, initiative and partnership should be viewed through the eyes of the company’s workforce. How will it change the nature of their work, their place in the organization and their relationships with one another? Recognizing the human impact of business decisions is essential to effective communication and change management.


Address the challenges facing society

All stakeholders – customers, employees, partners, investors and community members – expect business leaders to use their positions to address social issues. In fact, they increasingly trust business leaders more than elected officials, believing them to have the power and influence to make things better. This doesn’t mean that every executive must solve every problem; what it does mean is that they must choose some social issues and address them proactively, regardless of whether those issues have a direct bearing on their business. If an issue is important to employees, shareholders and customers, then it’s important, period.


Final thoughts

Contemporary business leaders have no choice but to meet this moment head-on, honor their employees’ contributions and strive for sustainability. The actions they take, underpinned by frequent and transparent employee communication, will drive business performance and ultimately shape their legacy.