September 21, 2017

How to Be an Activist at Work

This article is not just for Millennials.

There are many, many issues that plague our society today. Many civil causes we all want to fight for and many things for us to be passionate about. There is racism/ racial discrimination, LGBTQ rights and women’s rights/ equal pay. There's poverty, sex trafficking, domestic violence, police brutality, and much more that I may have missed.

The just is there is no shortage of issues in our society and historically, the corporate workplace has been off limits for discussion of such issues. For some reason it’s seen as taboo or inappropriate to discuss the problems of the world at work. Perhaps that is part reason why they still exist so prevalently? We spend about 25% of our awaken time at work. How much more change can we implement if we tapped into just 2% of that?

As Millennials, we genuinely seek purpose and want to do meaningful work.

60% of Millennial say a sense of purpose is part of the reason they chose to work for their current employer. 1

We want to make a difference in the world and we want to work for companies that are doing it. We are uncomfortable with the traditional line drawn between work and changing the world. We challenge the ideal that the line should exist to begin with. Why does it have to exist?

That’s the exact question I’m asking you—Mr. or Miss. Millennial. Why does the line between work and changing the world have to exist? How can you change the world from your very cubical, at perhaps the driest place to work on earth? What can you do to make a difference? How do you become an activist at work?

Many people think being an activist only consists of being on the front lines of protests, standing at the top of the stairs of capital buildings delivering powerful speeches. Those activists are beautiful souls but there are other ways to activate.

Activist- a person who makes an intentional action to bring about social or political change. 2

You can be a social activist right on your job and I’m about to walk you through how.

How to Become an Activist at Work

The #1 way you become an activist at work is—LEAD. Instead of internally complaining about the lack of opportunities to discuss the real world problems on your heart, create the opportunities.

One of the best things about college is you are given the freedom, and resources, to give voice to your passion and desired initiatives. You are encouraged to use your voice, to lead, and to make a difference on campus. So transitioning to the workplace can be uncomfortable because it feels like those opportunities are taken away and 25% of your time is now spent muzzling that voice to fit into the corporate culture.

I would urge you to consider the fact that those opportunities are not gone, but just much harder to find or simply have not been established yet. That’s where your leading comes in. If the opportunity for you to create social change doesn’t exist within your workplace, create it yourself!

But there are very wrong ways to do this so pay close attention to following explanation of how to properly become an activist at work.

1. Research. 

Ensure your social cause/passion aligns with the mission statement or social responsibility objectives of the company. Be able to clearly explain the alignment (This will help you get organizational buy-in as you seek to accomplish your goals.

2. Prepare/ Ideate. 

Spend some time brainstorming of ways you can impact change concerning your social cause within the organization or with the help of the organization.  Consider your company culture when ideating! Holding a BLM rally in the cafeteria likely will NOT fit into the average corporate culture. But maybe an open forum on the challenges of minorities in [insert your city] will.

Here are a few ideas to get you started--

Create “safe space” markers/stickers around your cause, signaling safe spaces to have tough conversations.

Lead an open discussion/townhall meeting around your social issue

Start a speaker series providing perspective on social issues (I know a pretty awesome speaker to start with! 🙂

Start a book club reading books that shed light on your social issue. For example, if racism is your social issue, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is an amazing book to deep dive.

3. Have an open conversation about your social cause/ passion with your manager. 

Share your feelings and why this topic is so important to you. Next, share the alignment of the cause with the organization’s mission. Lastly, share your ideas and get his/her suggestions on next steps.

4. Gain alignment on moving forward with one or more of your ideas. 

Who are the powers that be whose buy-in you will need to move forward? It could be HR, a Diversity & Inclusion council, next level of management, etc. This direction will ultimately come from your manager. Prepare to present your ideas to these powers that be. Speak in their language. While a business case should not be necessary in discussion of morality, you are speaking to business people who likely have not done such things. Therefore, have a business case prepared.  Show your passion and explain how you will accomplish your idea, while maintaining job performance.

Things to Consider

Before you take these 4 steps to become an activist at work, there are several things to consider.

  • Seek employee resource groups that might already support the initiative you are passionate about and join. For example, let’s say my social justice passion lies in seeking equal rights for women and my company has an employee resource group for women. I could join that ERG and begin accomplishing my goals via the constructs of that organization.
  • Be ready for the time commitment. This will likely be outside the scope of your normal job so make sure you have the time and energy to commitment to leading in this space.
  • Be prepared for pushback and remain calm. There will be people who disagree with your cause or believe it is inappropriate for work. Be prepared to converse with those individuals but DO NOT lose your cool. Stay level headed and professional. This is not political.
  • Remember you are still at work. Radicalism will not work and is not acceptable. Be tactful, professional, and strategic. This should add to the value you bring as an employee, not take away from it.
  • Don’t get caught up in the numbers.  I’m a firm believer in the fact that you change the world one person at a time. If you can increase awareness and enlightenment by just one concerning your social cause, you have made progress.
  • You are taking a risk. In some companies, this is unchartered territory. No one else has had the guts to do this, to this degree. Everyone else played it safe and upheld the line between work and changing the world. You are different. You are taking a risk. More likely than not, it will be praised but there is a possibility that it can stunt your growth. That is can black list you. I want you to be fully aware of this possibility before you begin down this path. But if you’ve gotten this far in this article, making progress in this social cause is likely worth it to you.

To the Critics

Many people will cringe at the idea I am proposing of being an activist at work, arguing that it’s not the proper place or the proper time. That it will interfere with job performance. To those I would ask—where is the proper place to address and change the prevalent social issues of the world we all live in and do business in? When is the proper time to make real change in the world? How do employees individually contribute to the meeting of company social responsibility objectives?

Need more than a moral case? Need a business case too?

Companies with engaged employees outperform those without by up to 202%.3

71% of all employees are not fully engaged.3

You want to know how to truly engage the people of your workforce? Give them permission, not even addition time, to speak and impact the passions of their heart. Let them accomplish their purpose with you, and they won’t have to leave you in order to fulfill it.


1.    The Center for Generational Kinetics and Ultimate Software. (2015). Is There Really a Generational Divide At Work? Surprising Research on Millennials and Emerging Trends in the U.S. Workforce [White paper].

2.    Jenn T. Grace (2017). The Difference between an Advocate and an Activist. []

3. Dale Carnegie Training. (unknown) The Importance of Employee Engagement. []

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Raven Solomon

Raven is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Speaker, Author, & Strategist who helps organizations understand generations, racial equity, and their intersection.

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