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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

How Do Activists Manage the Risks Involved?

One of the things that most distinguishes activism in societal movements from activism in organizations is that individuals depend upon organizations for their livelihoods and careers; they have different rights as employees than as citizens and can be discharged. Even individuals who were not affiliated with specific groups but who spoke out recognized the risks involved if their actions were perceived by management as too radical or extreme. Two white administrative assistants who both work for senior managers explained the risks involved in raising issues, speaking out, or getting involved in diversity efforts:

Who’s going to pay your bills if you don’t have anybody else? So, you kind of have to think twice, which really shouldn’t happen. You should be able to say, OK, I’ve been treated wrong, help me.

I think they’re afraid to get so involved, because their manager might think they didn’t care about their jobs, their real jobs, their daytime jobs, and that they would be penalized for it.

Some activists tried to make a playful sense of drama out of the risk. A member of GALA stated:

I'm certainly a defender of my own job... I mean I'm not Joan of Arc about this kind of thing...but on the other hand I want to raise awareness about issues.

The collective nature of the groups also crystallized the risk they posed. The same individual from WOW who perceived that they could be more effective as a group also realized that they could be seen as more of a threat, evoking the “fear of any minority group rising up, rebelling, [and] causing trouble.” Another member of WOW commented on the reaction the women's group sparked when the men on the project noticed their meeting with a top manager to air concerns:

It’s very funny, because we’ll have lunch in one of those big conference rooms...with the big glass walls.... So people are always coming in and out at lunch time and the look on these guys’ faces when they see ten or fifteen women in a conference room together, with [a senior vice president] no less, they’re floored, you know, like 'what’s going on there?' It’s so unusual to have more than two or three women in a meeting at the same time. So, I’ve gotten just the funniest calls from people, ‘what were you guys doing in that meeting?’ [They’re] so paranoid.

The leader of the African-American Caucus discussed the threat that some people perceived in the formation of a group of blacks. He told us that after a group meeting in a glass-walled conference room, white employees approached Caucus members to ask, "What was going on in there? Are you planning an overthrow?"

In keeping with the shift in the social movements literature, from a focus on why and when people rebel to an exploration of how people rebel, we discovered a number of tactics that activists used to manage risks. They used tactics described in the literature, but in ways distinctive to organizational settings. Below, we present their approach to frame extension, specifically their use of the language of those in power to challenge power, and their use of strategic business techniques.

Multiple Uses of Frame Extension

Activists used elastic frames to pitch issues, but not in order to enhance recruitment. The literature has focused on framing as a way to broaden the base of appeal of a movement to attract diverse followers. Because the activists in organizations are known to each other, share a context and set of grievances, and are already assembled in the convenient meeting place of their organization, recruitment is not their focus. Instead, they concentrate on gaining management support and diffusing risk. To attain this support, they employed frame extension in three interesting ways that extend our understanding of this tactic: to find and handle management protectors, to persuade management, and to placate those in power who may feel threatened by diversity efforts. Each of these is illustrated below.

The passion with an umbrella image emphasizes the integral role of the umbrella. Employees worried that their managers would perceive their involvement with diversity issues as an indicator that they were not serious about their "day job" or their "real work." To counter this problem, they tried to get their managers to see that diversity was part of the corporate mission and mandate. They made the case to their managers that allowing one of their employees to devote some time to diversity would reflect well on them. Managers had an interest in signaling their commitment to diversity issues inasmuch as the issue had some salience to top executives, who were depicted variously by activists as genuinely concerned about the issue or deeply worried about lawsuits. In either case, activists tried to focus their own managers' attention on top executive pronouncements and thereby create some legitimate space for their own involvement in these issues. One African-American male commented on manager's discretion:

Even though [the CEO] and [the senior managers] will say this is the direction the company should take, I think given the business nature of the organization whereby groups sort of have their own freedom to do what they want,... it's something that each division has to decide if they want to buy into, managers decide if they want to buy into.

To gain the attention and support of managers, many activists felt it was important to make a business case for diversity, despite the fact that they were motivated to get involved in diversity efforts for ethical reasons. Many activists felt that the diversity efforts were part of a moral imperative for the company. For example, two women explained how compelling and deep-rooted the issues were for them and their compatriots:

I think the people that are very into the diversity movement had to do it because it was kind of the right thing to do, and people are more active about promoting diversity programs or just doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve had for years and years and years, have been worried about people being treated right. So, there is a philosophical or moral underpinning there. You should treat people right, and I don’t at all feel sanctimonious about how we’re doing here at PineCo. I think we’re just much more sophisticated about how we devalue people than other organizations.

Some activists saw the business case simply as a pragmatic way to get the attention of busy people:

Just getting through your e-mails in the course of the day means that you just blip out some things.... So finding a place for diversity information means making over and over again the business case for diversity....Otherwise, people just hit the delete key and away they go.

Others made a more political case that the business framing was less strident and more likely to be heard. They did not present moral reasons as the most important ones in attempting to “sell” the issues to management. Rather they turned to the business case to be made for diversity and how it impacted the “bottom line.” By framing diversity as a business issue and defining it as a strategic problem, these activists hoped to increase the likelihood of affecting change within the company. As one white man remarked:

When it was first framed as just a moral issue, [it] didn’t work well enough, because other people would say ‘to hell with you, that’s your moral position, I’ve got my moral position’.... So, that’s not sufficient, the company needs some way to say this is a business position, a business goal.

Activists used the language of the very system they wished to alter in order to enhance the effectiveness of their change efforts. Activists used frame extension to put diversity issues into a language and logic that was familiar and legitimate and less likely to be challenged. A founding member of the African-American Caucus remarked:

What I’m saying is that in some ways you have to tie those things together in order for the managers who cannot accept why are we doing this diversity issue: ‘Why is PineCo spending millions of dollars on this? I don’t see why, what’s the difference in recruiting blacks in the workplace versus just keeping it the ways it is.’... The whole issue is: as long as people buy it somewhere, they don’t have to buy into the same mission statement.

While many people in the movement believed in the importance of framing the issue as a business problem, they did not lose sight of the moral reasons driving their activism. They saw the business case as a secondary rationale and distinguished it from their private or hidden transcript (Scott, 1990), which reflected their conviction. For example, the same white man who said above that the business position for diversity must be stressed also stated:

[Diversity] corresponds to my values and the world I want to live in is a diverse world. So, you know, if you could categorically prove to me tomorrow that the old boy team is more efficient,...I wouldn’t believe you. And I wouldn’t care. I’d push on.

The work of these very committed activists, particularly when it addressed power differentials, presented a potential threat to those in power and vested in the status quo. A checklist of programmatic items developed by a management-led task force on diversity reflected management's fear of any one group challenging the current power structure; the list included the following item: "encourage employees to form non-political support groups [italics ours]." The founder of Women at PineCo recognized this diffuse fear of politicization:

[Top management] didn’t know if we were going to be really political and militant and were afraid of the power we could possibly have.

Activists therefore framed the issues in a broader context in order to win support and allies within the organization and thwart potential resistance in achieving their goals. They knew that white men would see diversity efforts as a potential erosion of their privileges. An African-American woman spoke about assuaging the fears of the privileged:

I don’t think you’re going to find white men ever being glad to see someone of color get a job that they have a divine right to – God ordained that they should have these things. But I think that these kinds of efforts have to be contextual, as within a broader issue of improving opportunity for everyone and putting more structure and formality in the way in which those decisions get made.

They placated management by extending the frame of their issues to show how it was also good for white men, not aimed at dispossessing them. Some activists argued that the correctives they advocated under the rubric of diversity were really just solid management practices, from tracking career advancement to improving quality of worklife. A number of people emphasized the need to include issues of work/family balance under the rubric of diversity to expand the number of supporters. In linking diversity to broader managerial practices, activists hoped to emphasize that everyone stood to benefit. A white man who took an active interest in the movement explained:

You’re going to lose this if you don’t put it within a broader context of issues about the quality of life in the workplace,...because of people’s bad instincts about attacking special interest groups.

One woman felt strongly that upper management needed to place some people of color on the “fast track” for promotions, but explained that taking that action would become more acceptable for others if it was presented as improving career development for everyone in the company:

I think that doing that in a broader organizational context makes it a little more palatable when you do something additional for someone else.

These multiple uses of frame extension go well beyond the concern for recruiting new members to the movement. In organizational settings, the authorities with whom activists engage in their change efforts are known and present and have direct power over activists as employees, a situation different from the sometimes more distant and vague authorities contested in social movements. Frame extension is used to explain issues to management and to placate those in power, because the umbrella is a salient part of activism in the workplace.

Strategic Business Techniques

We found that activists in the workplace have a variety of organizing techniques readily at their disposal, of the type that movement leaders (e.g., Alinsky, 1972) have instructed activists in community settings to learn and employ. The activists comfortably used mission statements, subcommittees, memos, and electronic bulletin boards. The founder of Women at PineCo described her group with a succinct mission statement, using the infinitives familiar in corporate mission statements: to encourage the growth and support of women at PineCo and encourage the environment to improve for women at PineCo and people at PineCo.

Defining the mission statement was one of the first orders of business for the newly formed African-American Caucus, as one member pointed out:

We're at the stage where we're still trying to formulate our own mission statements, our own processes.

He went on to explain how they set up subcommittees to pursue particular issues – college recruiting, promotion, retention, corporate culture, community outreach – and modeled themselves as a business task force, for effectiveness when presenting issues to management:

On the first day we wrote down all the issues we felt we wanted addressed and put them into different categories. And the way we want to do [this] is to have committees kind of look at these types of things and come up with a large list – you know, one committee look(s) and they say how are we going to operate, as a group caucus. You know, we recognize that we have to be organized. We have to be considered a legitimate business in order to interact.

In another example, a white man convinced of the urgency of attending to diversity decided to write a memo and post it on the electronic bulletin board. He described this tactic as the same approach he would employ in advocating any kind of technical change. He explained:

I made sure that the people who were running diversity [training] saw it. And I posted it into a very public place. And supposedly a place which management was looking at. We have [software] databases. One of them was competitiveness – how can we be more competitive. That's in fact where I made sure it was.

These familiar business techniques assisted the activists in organizing themselves, gaining the support and attention of management, and dissipating the threat of their collective power. At the same time, these strategies could dilute the radicalness of their activism. For example, their group meetings could become just one of many task force meetings that they had to attend. Likewise, the mission statements both clarified and placed boundaries or limitations on their goals. By institutionalizing the groups, the groups were able to gain recognition from upper management to the point where representatives from each group were invited to quarterly meetings of the management run corporate diversity group. At the same time, this sanctioned recognition diminished the original grassroots nature of the groups and their outsider status.

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