CEO Activism: What We Can Learn from the Tech Companies

CEO Activism: What We Can Learn from the Tech Companies

Published 8th November 2018
Belinda Jenkins

HCLI Editor & Contributor

Published 8th November 2018

According to a new Weber Shandwick study, 82 per cent of technology professionals favour CEO activism. Often an early indicator of market trends, there are some compelling reasons why C-Suite executives across all sectors and markets should take notice. 

Activism comes in many shapes and forms. Defined, it’s the “the process of campaigning in public or working for an organization in order to bring about political or social change.”  Increasingly, CEOs and founders are taking a stance on issues that matter to them and their workplace. 

In HBR’s article, The New CEO Activists, they describe it as a “significant phenomenon” and explore the question, so why do it?  Perhaps some of these answers lie in what we see in the global tech industry.

CEO activism can relate to social, economic, political, technological or sustainability issues. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum featured an article on Why CEOs need to become activists in sustainability, with analysis showing that consumers expect CEOs to prioritise sustainability in operating their businesses. 

The Tech Effect on CEO Activism 

According to CEO Activism in 2018: The Tech Effect, commissioned by global communications and marketing services firm Weber Shandwick in partnership with KRC Research, 81 per cent think CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about issues that are important to society. 

“With technology at the forefront of so many businesses today, tech professionals are a highly sought-after group, no matter the market or sector,” said Lydia Lee, co-head of global technology, and chair, emergent China practice, Weber Shandwick. “This study provides a framework of how this select audience functions and reflects the expectations that the current workforce anticipates from their CEO on societal issues.” 

Enthusiasm for CEO activism is high in all seven markets we studied. Regardless of where tech professionals are geographically located, CEO activism is perceived overwhelmingly positive. 

Favourability of CEOs Taking A Public Position on Hotly Debated Current Issues by Country


Lee continued, “It’s important that companies realise, whether setting up locally or internationally, that this highly specialised group value and expect their CEO to speak up for what they believe in”.

Favourability for CEO activism is also not limited to those employed by companies in the technology sector. Tech professionals who work for technology companies have a slightly higher favourability than those in non-tech companies (86 per cent vs. 81 per cent, respectively), although they have a more intense affinity for it, with significantly more saying they are “much more” favourable (44 per cent vs. 35 per cent).

Favourability of CEOs Taking A Public Position on Hotly Debated Issues by Sector


What Issues Technology Professionals Want CEOs to Address

The survey presented respondents with a list of 19 current issues and asked them to identify which ones they feel CEOs and other business leaders should speak out on and express their opinion. More than two-thirds of respondents cite these issues as the most appropriate for CEOs to address publicly:

  1. Jobs skills/training (74 percent)
  2. Equal pay in the workplace (73 percent)
  3. Privacy and personal data protection (72 percent)
  4. Artificial intelligence (68 percent)
  5. Globalisation (67 percent)
  6. Gender equality (66 percent) and health care coverage (66 percent)

The leading issues – job training, equal pay and data privacy – are all ranked as the top three issues by tech workers in and outside of the technology sector, suggesting that these are professional issues, not specific to any industry-specific challenges.

A Guide To Leveraging CEO Activism to Attract and Retain Technology Professionals

As the CEO activism movement builds momentum, companies have a rare opportunity to make an impact on tech professionals, who can be a hard to attract and retain segment.

“Although this tech segment acknowledges the risk of CEOs speaking up, they expect their leaders to be public advocates when it comes to issues that impact people’s lives,” says Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist Leslie Gaines-Ross. “They also see CEOs who speak up as consciously building corporate reputation and doing what is right for society and the world.”

Weber Shandwick recommends that CEOs and their companies consider the following guidelines to make the most of the CEO activism opportunity, whether they choose to speak out publicly or not.  

Recognise the advantage of CEO activism when it comes to attracting and retaining technology employees. This select group of employees is highly enthusiastic about CEOs speaking out on today’s hotly debated issues. Notably, they express increased loyalty to an employer whose CEO is a public advocate.

Make company values crystal clear, both internally and externally. CEOs and companies are finding that they need to be accountable for their values. Technology employees are particularly values-driven, with nearly nine in 10 believing a CEO has a responsibility to defend the values of his or her organisation.

Take into account the issues that resonate most with tech professionals. Not surprisingly, tech professionals care most about issues that directly affect their jobs now but are also likely to consider the impact of technology on future generations of advanced technology professionals. The ongoing debate about responsible and irresponsible technology and its effects on society are not overlooked by this influential workplace segment.

Understand the wide reach of CEO activism. The desire for CEOs to speak out is highly desired by high tech professionals across the seven markets in our survey, despite the U.S. being the epicentre of the most notable CEO activist events of the past few years.

Don’t overlook women technology professionals. On every level, their positivity exceeds the already high regard for CEO activism held by their male peers. At a time when companies are looking to attract more women technologists, CEO activism may be an advantage to promote in hiring activities.

Please click here for the full CEO Activism in 2018: The Tech Effect presentation. Click here for additional Weber Shandwick research and insights on CEO activism.


Back to top