The Democratization of Corporate America

The confluence of the coronavirus pandemic, anti-racism demonstrations pulsating through cities and towns and the still gusting #MeToo movement is giving way to a storm front waiting on the horizon for American business leaders.

They are confronting the great democratization of corporate America.

Feeling powerless in the political system but energized to thunder against injustice, workers across the socioeconomic spectrum will no longer toe the company line. Instead, they are crashing into the corner office threatening damages over commitments to cultural change, for which the climate is unfavorable on Capitol Hill.

Inaction is the dominant force in Congress. Even Stacey Abrams acknowledged “voting feels inadequate right now” while fighting voter suppression and encouraging U.S. citizens to express themselves at the ballot box.

No wonder 84 percent of Americans say it feels like our democratic system of government is sliding away, according to our recent survey. Testing 1010 Americans ages 18 to 65, Decode_M also found 82 percent said it’s important for their employers to stand up to the government on the issues that matter to them. And 81 percent want the opportunity to weigh in before their leadership makes major company decisions.

Momentum is moving furiously toward employee activism: Workers don’t need a union to bargain for their values and urge corporations to stand up to the government. And companies do well when they respond, lest they lose chunks of their employee base.

There is good news embedded in these findings: 73 percent said they trust their employers more than the government to do the right thing. But with that trust comes increased responsibility, and some CEOs have been telegraphing that’s exactly what they want.

A lineup of iconic corporate leaders from former Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz to finance and media mogul Michael Bloomberg to Disney CEO Bob Iger flirted with a run for the White House this election cycle in response to Donald Trump’s improbable victory. Each leader predicated his run in part on taking care of the workers in his employ and the causes he championed along the way. In an ironic twist, their CEO peers who were monitoring their presidential ambitions with great interest will get a better taste for themselves whether holding elective office appeals to them. Forget like-minded, monochromatic boardrooms; now they have to answer to big, diverse workforces and can make an impact.

Until now most American workplaces functioned as autocracies with traditional top-down leadership. Individual workers were intimidated by byzantine human resources departments, or they had to summon the strength to confide in colleagues who would be willing to negotiate as a pack. But we’re at a turning point in business history: A single employee commands more influence than ever before and can help an entire workforce demand change.

This new era began with the #MeToo movement, when women who had been inadequately paid, oppressed, harassed or assaulted refused to stay silent any more. Scores of women’s unique stories formed a tidal wave that engulfed C-Suites, swallowing up executives in its wake.

Thirty-eight states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment over the last 50 years, but it still isn’t the law of the land. Ivanka Trump took up the mantle of paid family leave, but Congress has yet to kick this issue over the finish line. Instead, companies are starting to bend to the demands of new generations of workforces who want companies to remake policies to reflect changing lifestyles.

Consider how much more could be coming: In our survey 91 percent of respondents said they want paid leave policies to extend to all employees, regardless of gender. 85 percent want companies to recognize the need for flex time to tend to parental care in addition to childcare.

The desire for an overhaul extends much further than leave policies. Congress last raised the federal minimum wage 11 years ago, to $7.25 per hour, giving the left a talking point for picket lines without progress to show.

It took the first pandemic in a century to show Americans they would be paralyzed without essential workers, many of whom make these wages. Major companies like Amazon and Kroger were shamed publicly by those on their payroll into offering hazard pay to workers on the frontlines — and they rebranded it “hero pay” to save face. We found 91 percent of respondents want employers to rethink their compensation structures for essential workers so they are paid fairly for their work, with 64 percent calling that change “very important.”

Add to that the swirling worldwide reaction to the murder of George Floyd that sent gale force winds into C-Suites. Take two phrases that were hallmarks of the recent anti-racism demonstrations: “No justice, no peace” and “silence is complicity.” Those warnings, directed initially at law enforcement, grew into a watch for executives of companies large and small.

Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout to challenge founder Mark Zuckerberg’s values when he refused to annotate President Trump’s inflammatory posts. Audrey Gelman, founder of the women’s coworking business, The Wing, stepped down after complaints of racial discrimination among her staff.

A string of highly publicized resignations like Gelman’s is laying the groundwork for employees to demand leadership teams look more diverse and live up to the values they claim to hold. Sixty percent of respondents say they want to see a chief diversity officer added to the C-suite. 65 percent want employers to commit to ensuring their board is gender-diverse, and 68 percent want to ensure it’s racially diverse.

Millennials already have made it clear they want to work for companies that share their values. But mealy-mouthed mission statements don’t cut it anymore, and a new wave of corporate social responsibility is coming. 67 percent of respondents in our survey said they want their employers to engage in social activism for which they can be held accountable.

Empowered employees, democratized offices, new generations of leaders coming to power: When Americans get fully #BacktoBusiness after the dust settles from the recent protests, and the coronavirus pandemic is finally behind us, every rung of the corporate ladder will look demonstrably different than it did earlier this year.

Momentum Maker, Author of Maximum Momentum, Founder & CEO of Decode_M