Get ready bosses — today’s protesters are tomorrow’s workers

by Beth Kowitt

Corporate America would very much like its employees to be quiet now.

Executives have had enough of the bring-your-whole-self-to-work and speak-up-at-the-office grand experiment of the pandemic era. Across the U.S., C-Suites are yearning for a return to business as usual — aka, you do what we tell you, we pay you for it, and you keep your opinions to yourself.

But if the activity on college and university campuses is any indication, Gen Z is unlikely to cooperate. For weeks, pro-Palestinian student protests have roiled higher education. Disrupted and canceled commencement ceremonies have put a bookend on the turmoil.

Employers better prepare themselves for this kind of energy; soon enough this crop of new graduates will be arriving in the office. For some Gen Zers, it’s not just the war they’re protesting, but also a more general failure by those in power to care for them and the mess of a world they are set to inherit. “We are the generation of school shootings, the generation that is tasked to deal with climate change,” Columbia University senior Sofia Ongele told The New York Times last month. “We’ve just been dealt the short end of the stick time and time again.”

Do not expect Ongele and the rest of her cohort to buy into the idea of deferring to their workplace elders. “The generation coming through is not willing to accept the hierarchical approach that previous generations have done,” Megan Reitz, associate fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, told me.

These dynamics are setting up a major clash between employers and their young workforce. Companies want a rollback of the corporate activism that marked the pandemic era, while Gen Z now expects the workplace to be a forum for political candor. A recent survey from job search and review site Glassdoor found that 64% of Gen Z had talked politics at work in the last year, more than any other age cohort. Almost half say they would not apply for a job at a company where the CEO backs a political candidate they disagree with — versus 39% for millennials and about 30% of both Gen X and baby boomers. Younger workers may be more inclined to talk politics and expect their companies to do the same because they don’t remember the time, not all that long ago, when both were taboo.

But now has come the fallout. If a company takes what’s considered a left-leaning position on a political or social issue, it will be pilloried by the right for “woke capitalism.” But stay quiet, and employees — whose outspokenness corporate culture has cultivated — may rebel. “Companies are desperate for a route [out] of the hole they’ve dug themselves into,” says Alison Taylor, New York University business school professor and author of Higher Ground: How Business Can Do the Right Thing in a Turbulent World.

There is no clearer example of this than Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which from its early days encouraged employee voice and activism, giving workers a sense that they had a say in how the company was run. The rank-and-file had a track record of successfully advocating for change; in 2018, Google succumbed to pressure from employees and ended its Project Maven contract, a deal with the U.S. Department of Defense to help analyze drone videos.

But now even Google has had enough. The company fired 50 employees last month for protesting the tech giant’s contract with the Israeli government. In a memo to employees, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, “This is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts coworkers or makes them feel unsafe, to attempt to use the company as a personal platform, or to fight over disruptive issues or debate politics.”

This might feel like a betrayal to Googlers who thought they were joining a free-wheeling and open culture, one not all that dissimilar from the college campuses some of them had recently departed. But Pichai is right to make it clear what the expectations are, even if employees don’t like them. If CEOs really want to revert to the I just work here era, they need to have those expectation-setting conversations early and often (notably, Pichai’s letter came after the employee protests). As the Class of 2024 enters the workplace, companies may even want to consider making those discussions part of new employee onboarding, if they’re not already.

Better yet, business leaders should be upfront about not just what is forbidden, but also what is allowed when it comes to employees using their voices — a subject that, in the age of social media, isn’t always limited to the 9-to-5. And while companies may now want politics and personal values out of the office, why not give employees ample opportunity to express them in other settings, perhaps by providing time off to vote or volunteer for a nonprofit of their choice? Because if companies are asking Gen Z to quiet down at work, they’re going to need space elsewhere to speak up.

Beth Kowitt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering corporate America. She was previously a senior writer and editor at Fortune Magazine.