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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Passion with an Umbrella:
Grassroots Activism in the Workplace

Maureen Scully and Amy Segal

Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Task Force Working Paper #WP13

Prepared for the May 25-26, 1999, conference “Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Institutions of Representation”

September 1, 1999

Identification of Activists

In using Zald and Berger’s (1978) definition of a social movement in an organization as “unconventional politics,” we sought to identify both individuals who had taken actions and groups that had formed outside the legitimated mechanisms for reaching decisions and allocating resources within the organization. In other words, we sought to uncover change efforts that were not explicitly initiated by senior management.

We had to start our search for activists in formal channels. Initially, we asked for a list of individuals who had been actively involved in diversity efforts in the development division of this company. We then developed a snowball sample from our initial interviews by asking participants if they could recommend other individuals who had been active in diversity initiatives. In receiving referrals through this sampling procedure, we tapped into a broader cross-section of the company, which included individuals active in diversity initiatives on a corporate-wide basis. Individuals at all levels were identified as activists in the diversity effort within the company, from administrative assistants to a senior vice president.

Through this sampling method we discovered more grassroots activities and groups that had formed that were not necessarily initiated or sanctioned by top management. By continuing to ask the individuals we interviewed for referrals, we were able to obtain confirmation that we had been interviewing the most active individuals who were repeatedly nominated. We stopped interviewing when we got no new names, indicating we had saturated this sample or network of activists. Not all the members of each group were interviewed, because they were never nominated by other group members or individuals. Although the activists we spoke with initiated grassroots groups and voiced their belief that management should be doing more, many additionally sat on formally sanctioned, management-led diversity task forces and committees as another means of getting their voices heard. We limit this paper to only their grassroots efforts.

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