Uh oh ... there's an activist in the office

The beauty of teams is the variety of skills, experience, knowledge and personalities they bring together. Unfortunately, sometimes these differences can also be the cause of unrest, and most workplaces will at some point experience an 'activist' in the office.

While this might conjure up images of extremist behaviour, most often it will present in much more everyday terms - as a team member who genuinely believes the world would be a better place if they can just convince you to convert to veganism / join their gym / embrace alternative health treatments / try their new diet / support their political campaign.


For the purposes of this blog, let's take bullying, discriminatory and any hate-fuelled behaviours off the table. Bullying and harassment must never be tolerated, and will always demand a very different type of conversation. What we are going to cover here is the type of activism most commonly seen in workplaces, and that often sits in a grey area which leaves many managers unsure of their rights.


Have a conversation

Sometimes it can be hard to make the call on when the issue is enough of a problem that it needs to be formally addressed. Is it just your team member being enthusiastic about their cause? Should you ride it out and hope their enthusiasm fades? Will you exacerbate the issue by drawing attention to it?

There are a couple of indicators to keep an eye out for. Firstly, is the behaviour affecting your work environment or other members of the team? As a manager you have a responsibility to protect your business reputation, workplace culture and the morale of your team.

Secondly, is the behaviour outside the expectations outlined in your Values or detailed in your Policy Manual? If you've defined what is appropriate and expected in your workplace, it is important to have a conversation when the behaviour falls outside those guidelines.


Set reasonable expectations

Be clear about what behaviours need to change. It is important to be specific at this stage because your activist is likely unaware or unconcerned about the impact their behaviour is having on the team and work environment.  If you do not want pamphlets distributed in the workplace or left in common areas, set that as clear expectation.  Ensure they are aware that harassment of staff or customers will not be tolerated under any circumstances, and if you have seen behaviour that you are concerned borders on, or may be construed as, harassment, describe it in detail and let your activist know where your boundaries lie.  For example, it may be appropriate to make clear to them that they are welcome to have crystals on their desk, but as it is a business and shared workspace, lighting scented candles is not okay.


Encourage two-way discussion

Any feedback session benefits from opening the floor to the other party and seeking a better understanding of the thought processes and personal beliefs driving the behaviour. It is also important in building a productive relationship that your activist feels heard - this is, after all, what they are trying to achieve in the workplace.  Stonewalling an activist rarely yields a positive outcome. This doesn't mean you need to agree with them or sit through a lengthy manifesto. Concentrate your questions on their perception of their activism and the impact on the work environment. It might be the first time your activist has had to take a step back and consider a bigger picture outside their passion for their cause, and they might have their own self-awareness revelation.


Make reasonable accommodations

If there are accommodations you can make without impacting your business, it might be beneficial to consider them, particularly if you have made accommodations in similar scenarios. If you cater a special meal for your gluten-free team member, it would be reasonable to also consider a vegan option where possible. If you allow a team member to take a short break in a quiet space to pray at certain times of the day, you may also be willing to allow a team member a short break in a quiet space to meditate.

But you are also well within your rights to put appropriate boundaries on what you will and won't allow in the workplace.  You might be happy to allow a flyer on the notice board in the tearoom, but not distribution of samples of the latest and greatest protein shakes to people while they are working. That's okay. It's also okay to make the distinction that it is never appropriate to tell another team member that they would benefit from a new weight-loss program.

One word of caution - it can be difficult to come to 'reasonable' accommodations when it is a cause you don't agree with. It is worth taking an extra moment and checking your response to see that you have put the immediate emotion aside to make sound, fair and defensible business decisions. For example, your activist's political persuasions might annoy you and therefore any behaviour will get under your skin. To distance some of the emotional response, it might be helpful imagine their position was more closely aligned to yours - would you still set the same expectations? If you can give that question a resounding yes, you are probably on the right track.


Document the discussion and any agreements

Even in quite informal discussions it is important to keep notes. This ensures you are both on the same page, and allows for expectations to be recorded in a way that leaves little room for misinterpretation. Notekeeping does not need to be onerous, and can be as simple as detailing your discussion, agreements and timeframes in an email that you can send straight after the meeting and then saving a copy to the employee's file.


Monitor and adapt

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the issue is resolved just because it has been addressed. The saying 'old habits die hard' can hold especially true in this case, and behaviours backed with passionately held beliefs can be difficult to curb. You may not need a follow up meeting, but it is a good idea to keep an eye on the situation and provide feedback early if you notice anything outside the agreed expectations. Sometimes even the best plans need a bit of tweaking to ensure they get the outcomes needed, and maintaining open dialogue should allow you to keep moving toward a good solution.