Protest’s lack of focus, strategy problematic

But some say protests could lead to greater scrutiny of executive compensation
By Kristina Hidas
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/13/2012

Human resources professionals across Canada don’t think the Occupy movement — the global phenomenon that started with protesters speaking out against Wall Street greed, pitting the 99 per cent against the wealthiest one per cent — will have a significant impact on workplaces.

Only 12.2 per cent of respondents to the latest Pulse Survey believe the movement had the potential to influence meaningful change in the world of work, with the remaining 87.8 per cent divided evenly between the movement having either an insignificant impact or none at all.

Interestingly, respondents were equally divided in their sympathies regarding the protests — 38.7 per cent were fully or somewhat sympathetic to the cause and 39.9 per cent were fully or somewhat unsympathetic, with the remaining 21.4 per cent undecided.

The results of the survey demonstrated a strong relationship between people reporting they understood and supported the Occupy movement. Those who felt the movement would have no impact whatsoever said they did not understand the objectives of the movement at all and were totally unsympathetic to it. Those who felt the movement would have a small impact also said they understood and supported it.

Only 12 per cent of respondents had participated in a protest or knew someone who had — many noted that having a job precludes participating in full-time protest activities.

In a response that echoes criticisms of the protests heard around the world, even those who supported the movement in theory believed it would not lead to any lasting change, largely due to the movement’s lack of focus and cohesion.

One comment that reflects many others was: “I agree with the idea of the protest and the reasons behind it but not with the way it was conducted.”

Respondents consistently criticized the movement, and its organizers and participants, for a lack of an articulated vision, focus and strategy. Respondents who were initially supportive of the movement said they were quickly disaffected by its lack of leadership, summarizing the mission statement of the protests as: “We don’t know what we want, but we’re not leaving until we get it.”

An absence of practical suggestions for, and alternatives to, the issues being protested further eradicated any impact and credibility the movement might have had, even with its supporters.

However, while the protests were disorganized and unfocused, they did succeed in stimulating debate and discussion around issues of financial corruption, income inequality, executive compensation and a call for the increased social responsibility of corporations, said one respondent.

Some participants said the movement, however flawed, demonstrated a growing awareness of the impact of corporate misconduct on society, noting the global economic crisis is only going to worsen and similar protests will recur in the future.

Many of those who commented on the failure of the movement to articulate a clear strategy also noted we have not seen the end of such protests, both in North America and elsewhere.

Those who felt the protests did have an impact said the protests have led to a heightened awareness that will result in “greater scrutiny of executive compensation by boards of directors who wish to appear socially responsible.”

Many of the comments were focused on respondents’ frustration with North American compensation policies and stressed the importance of HR’s role in compensation, specifically in “recalibrating fairness” back into corporate compensation.

Other commentators called for HR’s increased role in establishing a transparency and accountability they felt was lacking in corporations.

While the protests are winding down and their lack of focus and messaging is incontestable, political observers have noted that, in December 2011, United States President Barack Obama delivered a speech that focused on income inequality. He made specific reference to the one per cent and the 99 per cent, mentioning the middle class 21 times.

Despite the movement’s lack of leadership and strategy, it appears to have had an impact on public discourse. Whether the protests were an isolated incident or will become a recurring theme in Western politics remains to be seen.

Kristina Hidas is vice-president of HR research and development at the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Toronto. She can be reached at khidas@hrpa.ca or (416) 923-2324 ext. 370.

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