A generation of workers attuned to activism is getting comfortable with challenging the top boss

Chief executives routinely face barbs from investors and the media. Now some are dealing with criticism from a group closer to home: their own staffs.Two recent workplace sagasat online luggage seller Away and G/O Media, the publisher of former Gawker Media sites such as Deadspin and Gizmodohighlight the more outspoken scrutiny that some leaders face from employees. At both companies, disgruntled workers led efforts to pressure their chief executives over behavior or decisions they didnt like.The top boss used to be more shielded from in-house criticism. With some exceptions, discontented employees tended to grumble among themselves or at a town hall meeting. They let labor leaders do the toughest talking, usually in pursuit of better wages or job security. But at a time when digital forums like Slack and others are proliferating, workers arent just pressing employers to develop a stronger social conscience. They are taking leaders to task for their management style and, in some cases, calling for their jobs.
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To the CEOs under pressure, it feels like everyone in the world is shouting at them, said
Erik Bernstein,
president of Bernstein Crisis Management, a Denver-area firm that advises companies on corporate communications and reputation management.
At G/O Media, employees in its editorial union urged the companys private-equity owners to replace G/O CEO
Jim Spanfeller.
In a letter sent on behalf of 125 unionized staff, they argued his management had resulted in decreased web traffic and increased employee turnover. A spokesman for G/O Media owner Great Hill Partners called the letter divisive and intended to harm both the company and their co-workers.
At Away, co-founder
Steph Korey
in December said she would resign as CEO after an article in the Verge quoted unidentified former employees criticizing her management style and displayed leaked Slack logs of Ms. Korey criticizing employees. Calling her behavior wrong, plain and simple, she tweeted that she was working with an executive coach to improve as a leader.
She later reversed herself, saying she would stay as a co-CEO and calling it a mistake to let the harsh social-media reaction cow her into stepping down.
Such episodes come as companies are trying to attract younger skilled workers who survey data show crave a heightened purpose from their jobs and want their employers values to overlap with theirs. In response, high-profile CEOs such as
Walmart Inc.s
Doug McMillon
are speaking out on issues that matter to their workers and seeking to foster workplace cultures that encourage open debate and employee feedback.
By empowering employees to speak out, though, company leaders are opening the door for workers to criticize the boss, said
Ronnie Chatterji,
a professor of business administration at Duke University who has studied CEO and employee activism.
This is a double-edged sword of openness and transparency for a lot of companies and something that the new generation of CEOs is grappling with, he said.
Meanwhile, job-review sites such as Glassdoor allow employees to anonymously rate their employers and, more specifically, their CEOs, giving the outside world a snapshot of what the staff thinks of its leaders.
Nneoma Ajiwe,
a 26-year-old social-media associate at Away for five months in 2018 before she was fired for reasons she says were unfair, said she didnt speak to the Verge for its investigation, but said the article was largely reflective of her experience there. She said employees should speak out and hold company leaders accountable for the tone they set in the workplace.
It literally has an effect on the work that is done there, she said. No one wants to work at a place that is labeled as hostile or they feel like they cant work to the best of their ability.
Away disputes unspecified aspects of the Verges reporting and has demanded corrections to the article, Ms. Korey wrote in a message to employees on Jan. 13. The Verge says it stands by its reporting.
One of the more notable instances of employees calling out their leaders took place at
Alphabet Inc.s
Google just over a year ago, when 20,000 employees participated in a global walkout to protest managements handling of sexual-misconduct claims. The company has long prided itself on an open work culture. In response to the protest, CEO
Sundar Pichai
said Google would end its requirement for employee harassment claims to be handled in private arbitration.
More recently, Google has issued new guidelines seeking to keep discussions of politics and other hot-button issues more civil. It also has moved to appoint employees to moderate the companys often no-holds-barred internal message boards.
On the whole, internal employee forums can act as a release valve, providing employees a way to give leaders feedback or criticism without necessarily taking their concerns public, said
Donald Hambrick,
professor of management at Penn State Universitys Smeal College of Business.
Its not so much about identifying problem employees, as much as taking the pulse to keep track of how you, as a leader, are seen and how youre doing, Mr. Hambrick said.
Employees who dont have that outlet may come to believe that their only option is to air their grievances outside the company.
Kimberly-Clark Corp.,
maker of Huggies diapers and Kleenex tissue, employees can address Chief Executive
Mike Hsu
via his internal blog, a mechanism set up by his predecessor. Mr. Hsu reads all comments, according to the company, and none get deleted as long as they follow a few ground rules: Posters must name themselves, refrain from disclosing confidential information and be real, but be nice.
When Mr. Hsu used the blog in January to celebrate new executive assignments, one response wasnt celebratory. A worker in a plant closing amid the companys restructuring noted that while some in its upper ranks were looking forward to new assignments, he was preparing to file for unemployment.
A Kimberly-Clark spokesman said Mr. Hsu welcomes such feedback.
Companies are still trying to figure out how to handle crises born out of more openly critical employees, said
Davia Temin,
CEO of Temin and Co., a New York-based reputation and crisis-management firm.
This is a new competency, Ms. Temin said, and I dont think that its just a normal leadership competency that you learn in business school.
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com, Charity L. Scott at Charity.Scott@wsj.com and Sharon Terlep at sharon.terlep@wsj.com
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