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Insider Activism

Updated: Apr 29

Insider activism covers examples of concerned citizens participating in activism within or against the institutions they work in. This report explores if insider activism could be utilised in animal advocacy



Author: George Bridgwater



Executive summary

Although often seen as outsiders, activists represent values that can be found in all strata of society including the very institutions that are targeted by social movements. Individuals inside these institutions are often faced with uncomfortable moral dilemmas when their values as citizens conflict with their responsibilities at work. While some respond by repressing or compartmentalising these conflicts many will push against the problems in the system from the inside. There have been many instances of these insiders coordinating internal interest groups or cooperating with external organisations to help create change, including within animal advocacy. 


While these natural allies are a well regarded resource, more work could potentially be done to seed or cultivate allies within targeted institutions including corporations and governments. We examine the impact naturally occurring existing insiders have in various movements with the aim to investigate the potential impact of pursuing this as a route to activism. 


Broadly, we find that Insider activism is an inherently difficult phenomena to study and thus few attempts have been made to evaluate its impact empirically. Instead the majority of the existing evidence in favour of this approach is from theory and case studies. These broadly support employee and bureaucratic activism as viable approaches for achieving change. However, it’s still unclear how often attempts are successful. Even in cases where they are, the past success of the environmental or feminist movement may be more difficult to replicate for non-human animals, given the broadly lower levels of support.  


Given uncertain direct impact and the skill building available in such roles for more proven external advocacy tactics, this would still be a reasonable initial career path for activists to consider. In certain corporate roles, we also consider the value of the knowledge and information gathered. Although ultimately boosting the impact of these roles significantly, the information sharing approach comes with some risk. Whether this is worth it will depend on the legality of sharing this information in specific jurisdiction and the risk aversion of the individual.


Description of the approach 

Insider activism covers examples of concerned citizens participating in activism within or against the institutions they work in. This can occur due to natural conflicts of values or when a group of aligned people enter a particular organisation with the intention of exerting "influence on the nature and direction of policy within the infiltrated group" (1)

 

Insider activism in animal advocacy could be utilised in four different types of institutions. 

  • Corporations: Activists working as employees can work towards accelerating corporate commitments or release information about suppliers and corporate decision making to groups targeting the company with a campaign.

  • Government departments: This could involve animal advocates pursuing careers in policy-making bodies. Alternatively, this could involve animal advocates joining quasi-official committees and working groups (e.g. animal ethics committees, natural resource management boards).

  • Political parties: This could involve animal advocates either aiming to become elected officials in major parties or becoming involved in major parties in other roles, such as paid or volunteer policy-related roles.

  • Large NGOs: This could involve animal advocates influencing the direction of charities or even other associations like farmers' unions. 


This report will primarily focus on corporate and government insider activism. 


Corporate Employee Activism

What is Employee Activism?

Employee or insider activists refer to employees who try to challenge their hiring companies to defend social claims (2). The main outcomes of interest of employee activists are their impact on their own companies’ policies as well as industry wide effects when collaboration between employees of different companies occurs. Employee activists can either be people who are explicitly motivated to join companies to achieve some social goal or those who aim to achieve other social goals in a role they would acquire anyway. In the former case, the most widely used version of this tactic has been used by labour unions commonly referred to as ‘salting’ where a union representative will join an organisation with the intention of forming a union (3)


Employees can either act individually or in a small group positioning themselves for influence within the organisation or can organise mass employee actions, including walkouts (4). In fact, a significant number of employees engage in some form. A survey of 1000 employed American adults found that 38% reported having spoken up to support or criticise their employers’ actions over an issue (5). However, only half of these (19%) were focused on broader social issues, rather than those in the workplace, and support or action taken for any particular cause will be significantly less. Still, the vast majority of employees believe employees are right to speak up about their employers whether they are in support of them (84%) or against (75%) (5).  


Being an employee of an organisation comes with some inherent benefits as well as drawbacks to other forms of activism. Insider activists have the highest levels of access to organisation decision makers and information about the company's inner workings. This allows them to use a variety of internal lobbying tactics, including the circulation of informational reports or use of victim testimonials, documentary films, and social media (2). Compared to outside actors, their improved understanding of the social networks in an organisation allows them to use these tactics more efficiently, by lobbying the right people and using the most sympathetic framing, and thereby improving their odds of successfully influencing the organisation (Kilduff & Tsai, 2003). A great example of this is the work of the Einstein Nurses United to identify the most respected and influential colleges within the nursing staff to target their outreach to individuals who could shift the rest of their colleagues to join a union (source), then utilising a mass strike to improve their collective bargaining power to negotiate union contracts. 


However, being an insider is limiting in some ways as they are less likely to use some of the more disruptive tactics common for external pressure groups as they may risk being branded as troublemakers in ways that damage their careers (6). This is reflected in the typical tactics used by existing employee activists seen in table 1 which are more moderate tactics with less risk of personal costs. The vast majority of actions taken are discussions or social media comments rather than directly contacting or lobbying management or engaging in something more disruptive. 


Table 1: Actions taken by Employee Activists in the last 12-18 months (5)


For those that do use disruptive tactics, their knowledge of the internal company routines can be leveraged to target the most pivotal processes (2). However, existing employee activists don’t seem to be willing to take the larger risk of actively organising or putting themselves on the map as a ‘troublemaker’. This risk could be mitigated by external activist groups developing covert relationships with insiders (as discussed below in white collar undercover investigations) or by providing support for individuals who enter the organisation who already intend to take these risks, known as ‘salts’ in the labour union context.


The other risk of internal activism is that they can also be co-opted by organisations, particularly when internal groups rely on the organisation's resources (2). Examples of this include organisations that founded official LGBT employee groups that were resourced by the firm, ensuring its functioning within the bounds of corporate acceptability (7)


Success Rate of corporate Employee Activism 

While there is currently no overall statistic on the percentage of employee activism events that result in policy change, it is clear that this form of activism can be effective in influencing policies within organisations in some instances. The frequency of success varies depending on several factors, including the issue, the level of employee engagement, the receptiveness of management, external pressures and the tactics used. 


Previous examples of employee activism show case studies of success across a variety of causes. Many of these focused on issues that directly affect the workplace, including sexism, racism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Action on these issues has occurred across numerous industries and companies, such as:


  • Hundreds of ABC staff organised a walkout in solidarity with ABC journalist Stan Grant who had experienced racist abuse (5-10% of the workforce) (8). ABC promised to review how it deals with racism directed at staff (9).

  • Thousands of Google employees staged walkouts after a New York Times report  detailed how Google shielded executives accused of sexual misconduct (~10% of the workforce) (10,11). Google agreed to two of the activists’ five demands, an end to forced arbitration, and a transparent sexual harassment report.

  • Pinterest employees expressed solidarity on an internal chat app and staged a virtual walkout for three former co-workers who have accused the company of racial and sexual discrimination and retaliation (~5% of the workforce) (12). They also signed a petition to end discrimination at Pinterest (13). A lawsuit launched on this basis eventually resulted in a payout of $20m in part to Françoise Brougher, the company’s former chief operating officer (14). With some seemingly meaningful steps taken to improve its workplace environment according to Brougher, Pinterest has stated they “recognises the importance of fostering a workplace environment that is diverse, equitable and inclusive and will continue its actions to improve its culture”. Nike employees marched in protest of the company’s treatment of women (~4% of the headquarters workforce) (15) alongside a court case filed by former employees over discrimination. Since the scandal, Nike gave 7,000 workers pay raises and women now account for 43% of the vice presidents at the company (16).

  • Activision Blizzard employees walked out to protest sexism and harassment calling for a boycott of Activision games. 2,600 employees (~20% of the workforce) signed a statement calling for an end to mandatory arbitration in harassment cases, improvements in recruiting practices and creation of a diversity and equity task force (17). This, and subsequent activism by employees, resulted in significant pressure on the company, and a subsequent investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission resulted in a 35 million settlement (18), and a loss of ⅓ of the company's market cap over the course of the scandal. Microsoft has been moving to acquire Activision, and company policy change has occurred to try to address the issues raised (19)

  • Riot Games employees staged a walkout over reports of sexism in the workplace and five current and former employees filed lawsuits with the aim to end forced arbitration (6% of the workforce) (20,21). This was ended shortly after the walkouts (22) and eventually led to a class action lawsuit with a $100m settlement. The company also committed to having its internal reporting and pay equity processes monitored by a third party jointly approved by Riot and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for three years.


Employee action taken for broader social issues that don’t directly affect employee working conditions are less common but more relevant in our context. Here, the most significant successes have been for environmental concerns with employees pushing for organisations to adopt more eco-friendly practices, such as reducing carbon emissions. 


Environmental Issues:

  • In 2019 there was a cross company campaign from employees demanding net zero emissions by 2030 across the tech industry (23). This included employees at Amazon (4% of the headquarters workforce) (24), Google (1% of the workforce) (25), Microsoft (26), Facebook and Twitter. Each company later committed to carbon neutral targets, along with some other demands, although some pledged for shorter or longer deadlines than 2030 (27–30)


Other social issues:

  • Walkout at Disney to urge the company to take a stronger stance against a Florida bill which bans ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ issues from classrooms (0.04% of the workforce) (31). The company's CEO apologised for not coming out more against the bill. They announced a pause to political donations in Florida and support for advocacy groups fighting similar legislation in other states. The company has spoken out and taken similar actions in the past on these issues. 

  • Google employees signed a letter demanding more transparency about their work (32) and some resigned over the issue (33) after plans leaked that it had been considered a censored search app in China. The company did not publicly comment on the issue in the immediate aftermath although the original project was terminated (34)

  • Another project from Google named ‘project maven’ was a contract with the Department of Defense for analysing drone videos using artificial intelligence (35). Some several thousand employees signed a petition urging the company to shut down the project (36) and about a dozen employees resigned in protest (37). The contract was not renewed.

  • Several hundred Watfair Employees participated in a walkout at the company's headquarters and petitioned to protest the furniture company selling beds and other items to detention centres along the southern U.S. border (~3.5% of the workforce) (38). The company still planned to honour its contract but offered to donate $100,000 to the Red Cross above the $86,000 profit from the sale. 

  • Representatives from Amazon, Salesforce, and Microsoft from the Tech Workers Coalition signed petitions and held demonstrations concerning how their work was being used for surveillance or separating families at the U.S. border (39).

  • 50,000 WalMart employees signed a petition protesting the company’s sale of firearms asking management to cease the sale of firearms and ammunition, and stop donations to politicians supported by the NRA (2.5% of the workforce) (40). The public petition eventually gathered 170,000 signatures (41) alongside a walkout of 40 white-collar Walmart employees (42). The company stopped the sale of handguns and some rifles, but continued to sell others for hunting.  


There are few instances of this tactic being attempted for greater protection of animals.


Animal Advocacy:

  • The only publicised instance of this found for animal advocacy was Doug Maw who signed a petition for the better chicken commitment. Sharing the link of Morrisons’ internal Facebook group after being reprimanded for the post, he organised a protest in uniform which received national coverage. He was eventually fired although Morrisions said they fired him for other reasons and breaches of policy (43).


The most well documented cases of Employee activism are those that resulted in a wide number of employees involved in more demanding tactics such as walkouts, public petition and/or legal action. Although many of the instances above may have been successful, they represent the issues that received the strongest support from employees and the most publicity. Therefore, we may expect these to increase the chance of success compared to a standard attempt of employee activism. 


These examples also neglect the ‘tactful’ less visible tactics which employees are much more likely to use, such as expressing opinions in internal meetings (5). Thus, these examples also provide little evidence of the efficacy of entirely internal employee activism which is much more common. 

There is some limited existing research on Employee resource groups which are voluntary, employee-led groups that advocate for employees or on social issues. These have been more widely adopted across LGBTQ (44), racial and women's issues (45), and environmentalism (46). These have had well documented success for Lesbian and Gay groups (47) with two thirds of initial adopters of equitable domestic partner benefits doing so after internal mobilisation (48).


As with the cases of more open activism above, the most relevant cases of employee resource groups are their use by the environmental movement. Environmental employee resource groups have emerged in a variety of industries with a wide variety of activities. Unfortunately, most of the existing literature on the impact of these focuses on theory or concerns the impact on employee wellbeing or performance. There is not that much more beyond an understanding that the impact of these groups tends to be focused on raising internal awareness and advocacy (46), the ‘tactful’ advocacy tactics. Some companies, such as Macy’s, have included the environmental ERG in its sustainability initiative (46), but how often these groups achieve such involvement is unclear.  

Interestingly, companies themselves mostly consider their responses to employee activism as cooperative. Rietz et al (2021) conducted a survey from attendees at two different conferences as well as surveys of mid-seniority and senior leaders (n=392) inside a global organisation in the service sector (49). The total final sample included 7495 cross-sector and hierarchy leaders [email correspondence]. When asked to code their own organisations responses to employee activism, 8% were coded as non-existent suppressive, 14% as facadism (‘Let’s just say the right thing’), 18% as defensive engagement (must rather than want to engage), 47% as dialogic engagement (dialogue is proactively sought) and 13% as stimulating activism (activists given support). This is indicative that from a management perspective they view their typical response to employee activism as some form of either begrudging or proactive dialog with activists. Although Reitz et al notes that what senior management ‘perceive as engagement may not be perceived as such by more junior employees or those taking a stand on activist issues’(49)


Does the Animal Movement have sufficient support in relevant companies compared to these other causes?

The large number of cases of successful employee activism across cause areas is a good signal for the promise of the approach. However, a major concern with the generalisability with historic examples of employee activism is the level of support from employees. Amongst the general population there is widespread support for improving the conditions and protections of non-human animals (50–52). However, some of the seemingly most successful tactics, from widely publicised cases, involve a wide number of employees and more demanding tactics. So, even though most people support improvements to animal welfare, they need to be willing to take action and, potentially, personally costly action to engage in many of the tactics involved. 


A survey of the general UK population by Social Change Lab found 2.3% of the population reported attending ‘an event, protest or demonstration related to animal welfare or rights for animals’, 18.7% had ‘Shared content on social media about animal welfare’ and 45% had ‘Talked to your friends and family about animal welfare issues’ (Social Change Lab, forthcoming). To compare this to support for climate change, where activists have had success using employee activism in some contexts, in another survey in the UK, 11% of respondents indicated they were slightly (5.8%), quite (3%) or very likely (2.3%) to ‘Go to a legal protest’. With many more slightly (19.2%), quite (20.9%) or very likely (20.7%) to ‘Talk with others (e.g. spouse, partner, parent(s), children, friends) about environmental issues’ (Social Change Lab, forthcoming),which, although prospective rather than respective, indicates 3-4 times as many people are willing to protest for climate change than animal welfare or rights.


In the US, research from Faunalytics found that 16% of the population can be categorised as advocates, ‘People who voice support for animal protection and incorporate animal protection into their daily lives’. With a further 59% as allies, ‘People who voice support for animal protection but don’t incorporate animal protection into their daily lives’ (53). When comparing how favourable respondents were to different social causes, they found that animal protection was among the most favourable and least divisive. However they found similar rates of volunteering for animal groups of 2.8% (54) comparable to social change labs finding of 2.4% in the UK. 


Table 2: Data from Faunalytics Animal Tracker 2018 (source)


Many instances of employee activism have been successful at moderate turnouts, usually a few percent of the workforce. So, if taken at face value, the rate of previous attendance to animal advocacy demonstrations and volunteering for animal groups suggests that enough employees would be willing to participate in a walkout for animal welfare issues. However, this is self-reported attendance of a much wider category of events or demonstrations. Even if only requiring a small fraction of employees, the risk of being fired is a large ask to make of activists, particularly those who are not privileged enough to have a sufficient safety net to potentially risk being fired. Still, it seems plausible that there would be enough internal support for moderate tactics and possibly, in some cases, for the more aggressive tactics. 


Which part of the companies likely to be targeted would work best?

For these tactics to be successful there needs to be sufficient support within the firms most likely to be targeted through this approach, which in the animal advocacy context are large restaurants or fast food chains and supermarkets. This support could come from a few different areas within the company with employees in different areas having access to different tactics. 


The main split within each company is between the vast majority who work in each company's thousands of retail stores and those in their corporate offices. For two of the largest supermarket chains by employment, Walmart and Tesco, the head office accounts for only a few percent of employees with Walmart employing approximately 1.6 million associates in the US (2.1 million worldwide) (55) and only around 14,000 of these in the company's US corporate headquarters (56), 0.9% of the US workforce. Whereas Tesco has more than 330,000 colleagues (57) with about 5,000 working in their corporate headquarters (58), 1.5% of employees.  We can see that the vast majority of employees in retailers work within their physical locations. Successful organising at this level would allow the use of strong pressure tactics such as a mass walkout, causing store closures. However, doing so would require coordination between a vast number of individuals across thousands of locations. Many of those working in stores are mostly paid at or close to the respective minimum wages in their countries (59,60). An internal report from one supermarket in the US found 1 in 5 of its associates received government assistance and most considered to be living in poverty (61). In addition, the medium turnover rate is usually around 50% so most employees are not around for very long (62,63). Those engaging in activism here would likely be least financially able to risk their job and most at risk of replacement. They also lack direct access to important decision makers or the ability to gain direct influence of supply decisions. So although there is widespread evidence of concern for animal welfare across many different demographics, those in front line roles have a greatly reduced ability to act on these values. It may instead be better to use petitions from staff to campaign for change. 


The company headquarters and corporate office employees employ fewer people but the roles are much better compensated and can give employees direct access to key decision makers.  Employees working in these roles tend to be more educated and more able to risk being fired. Existing survey data suggests that those with similar demographics are more likely to take larger actions as their financial status and access to options can shield them from any ramifications (53). In the US, 21% of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher had ‘boycotted a store or product or had volunteered for an animal group [in the past year]’ and a further 50% were ‘allies’, those who had ‘taken actions out of concern for animals in the past year, such as: adopting an animal from a shelter, buying meat or dairy products labelled humane, or signing a petition for an animal cause’ and ‘who said they support anti-cruelty investigations or filing lawsuits to protect animals’ (53). These individuals are also much more concentrated geographically with most of the relevant employees working in the same office or location making it much easier to organise. 


Importantly, some positions within the corporate head office give employees access to or direct ownership of the decision behind product procurement. Examples of these roles include: Food Operations including buying, supply chain management and Food Innovation and Agriculture. Outside of these direct roles other departments can have influence over and knowledge of purchasing decisions, including the marketing and corporate social responsibility teams. This seems like the most promising area of the company to target for ease of organisation, ability of employees to engage in activism, and improved access to other internal lobbying channels. Access is more limited than for retail roles as these jobs either require some university education or specific backgrounds; if those requirements are met then they can be applied to directly or accessed by graduate schemes for their relevant areas.  


Overall, surveys tend to show widespread concern for animal welfare and a significant number of people willing to take some action. However, the tactics used by employee activists vary dramatically in demandingness from speaking up in meetings to riskier actions, such as signed public statements or walkouts. At this time, it seems unlikely to be tractable in physical retail stores or restaurants but quite plausible in companies’ corporate offices. 


What if employees won’t organise on their own, evidence from Union ‘Salting’

As outlined earlier, union ‘Salting’ is when individuals join an organisation with the intention of forming a union (3) and is the most widely documented case of corporate entryism. This has been used most widely in roles that are easy to enter, such as the services industry. In the case of union salting, the aim is to initially represent oneself as an ideal employee then network with existing employees gaining an understanding of the social network, any grievances employees may have and, importantly, potential organisers or allies. The external union then leverages this understanding to develop relationships with these potential allies and spur them to action. Although the aims of these unions do not generalise to animal advocacy, the general approach is the same and will be indicative of what advocates can expect, particularly as this approach can be employed in companies that don’t have any employees who would otherwise act first to take the lead on organising. There are a few case studies of prominent successful ‘salts’ most notably in Amazon and Starbucks:  

  • In 2021, Justine Medina applied to JFK8 Amazon facility in Staten Island as a salt and began working in September that year. By April 01, 2022, they had successfully worked alongside several other organisers to win the vote from workers in favour of forming a union (64)

  • Jaz Brisack, a Rhodes Scholar, became a barista at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, which they successfully helped organise. After the successful vote, another 238 U.S. Starbucks stores also voted to unionise (65)

  • Atulya Dora-Laskey, a 23-year-old DSA member and Chipotle employee who helped lead the Mexican food chain’s first-ever union success (66)


Even though there are prominent examples of successful salts in a variety of contexts, there are a few problems with the existing evidence of the efficacy of salts for our context. First is the base rate of success, as although there are certainly case studies of successful salts, given the covert nature of the practice there is not much evidence on the success rate of salts. Either as a whole or pre-vetted, well supported salts as would likely be used in the animal advocacy context. This makes the existing evidence pretty weak.In addition to this, although Union salting does employ a very similar theory of change to activist salting, the ask involved is aiming to better the conditions of workers who then have a self-interested incentive to organise. Still, this is not without risk to the first people to begin organising and in these cases the personal risk reward calculation may not make sense on purely self-interested grounds. Given the lower rate (about half) of employee activism for social issues outside of the workforce (5), we should expect salting for other social causes to have a lower rate of success.


Resources needed

The costs involved in this approach depend on whether people join organisations with the intent of organising or outside actors attempting to gain connections with existing employees. Salts working for unions have received compensation for their applications, for the time spent organising in addition to their paid work or subsiding lower wage jobs for salts who could have earned significantly more elsewhere (67). Many organisers have subsequently decided to turn down the money and these were in roles with significantly worse salaries compared to the corporate roles that would be targeted for employee organising. The main costs involved would thus be the counterfactuals of the individuals who choose this as a potential career route, which would need to be assessed on an individual basis.

The additional time cost of external organising could vary widely depending on the level of investment. This could vary from a small investment in managing and highlighting potential allies that are highlighted through other activities conducted for a campaign and then subsequently developing relationships with these individuals, to heavy investment in scoping and investigation into all staff members’ support for the cause and social capital within the company with an aim to develop relationships with internal influencers or other less visible allies that would not otherwise have been encountered. 


Legality of Activist Entryism 

An important consideration for taking this approach is the legal risk to the individual and potentially sponsoring organisation. As the legality of this approach and potential penalties will vary by jurisdiction this section should not be taken as legal advice. If you or someone you know is considering organising other employees or collaborating with external activists they should seek local specialised legal advice before taking action. The considerations below only cover the risk involved in broad strokes. 


The first act taken with this form of activism is applying for a job with the intent to organise or take action when in the role. There is legal precedent, in the US, for the protection of Union organisers (68) (69), which ultimately ruled that the union and the employer can pay a "salt" at the same time and that the employer could not treat salts differently than non-union employees during the hiring and employment processes (68). Although generalising, outside of the union context is perilous given the stronger protections afforded to unions. This case also involves an external organisation paying the employee to salt, something that may not be necessary in all cases and makes the case much more solid against the employee. The important factors are to present no false information on the application as this can leave you open for legal action (70,71).


Still, there are individuals who take a wide range of roles in all industries with the intent of taking pro-social action, such as many environmentalists who work in the oil and gas industry (72). Employee groups already have widespread precedent for LGBTQ (44), Womens’ (45) and environmental resources’ groups (46) with no action taken against individuals based on membership of these groups. In some instances, these companies even encourage these sorts of individuals to apply. For the mildest forms of activism which are most common, such as talking with other colleagues about your concerns, contacting management or HR or expressing opinions in company meetings, there are few risks involved. 


The next category of action activists may take are more public facing actions including social media campaigns, petitions and protests such as walkout. Companies could attempt to sue employees or even ex-employees for social media campaigns and comments if the information is defamatory, which involves statements that damage a company's reputation that are “a false statement purporting to be fact” (73). For some cases, this could be a large financial risk. If a company loses a contract based on the comments, damages could exceed lifetime earnings for those with the case brought against them. Even when any statements made are true, this still would not protect the employee from being fired by the company unless they were statements of illegal behaviour at your workplace (74,75). So, for example, writing about the purchases of caged eggs or lack of progress on commitments would not concern illegal activity so would not protect you from being fired. The lawfulness of a walkout and public protest based on legal behaviour depends on the purpose, timing, and the conduct of the strikers (76). Here, unfortunately, the strike must generally concern a work-related issue to be protected under the law. Making protests taken for issues affecting those outside of the workplace unprotected and putting those involved at risk of being fired (77,78). Although, as long as the statements made are true and no damage or other illegal activity takes place during the walkout, there should be no legal liability for attending protests either.


Existing guides or training for employee activities 

As the tactic has been used in various other cause areas, particularly unions, there are already several guides or training programs available to potential insider activists which I will list briefly for those considering this approach:


Employee Activism Conclusion 

Although there have been some well-publicised instances of successful employee activism, the existing evidence to support the overall efficacy of the approach in the context of animal advocacy is limited. Much of the research and evidence discussed here is focused on analogous causes or the use of tactics to gain concessions in other areas. So, although the approach has had some success for other causes, there is good reason to question the external validity of these cases. Particularly as the existing support for animal welfare/rights is lower than for the most prominent cases of environmentalism or for workplace issues such as discrimination or working conditions. Even within these areas, the obscure nature of most employee activism tactics makes it difficult to study. 


Still, this approach could be promising and warrants further exploration. Broadly then, employee activism seems securely legal as long as you do your job well which is likely to be beneficial to your activism anyway. However, some actions that you may take won’t be protected legally, so you can be fired. It could be a good route for skill building for advocates who want to eventually work for external advocacy groups in corporate relations. An understanding of a company's inner workings and the workload involved in relevant roles would be beneficial even if attempts to influence the organisation from the inside are unsuccessful. The primary benefit at this time would thus be information value about the impact of the approach and career capital. 

 

Corporate Undercover Investigations

What information would be available in these roles?

Corporate undercover investigations can be used for two potential purposes, either to acquire evidence of immoral business practices that can be released publicly or to provide information to activists about the business. The former of which is much more easily achieved through existing on-farm or slaughterhouse investigations as unless something illegal occurs or a company shows awareness of poor conditions on farms, day to day operations won’t be a cause for outrage as it's largely disconnected from conditions on farm. 


Staff at each stage of the company's supply chain will be aware of or have access to different information. So, embedding activists within middleman suppliers or retailers, particularly those managing retail companies' animal protein supply chain or the company's public image or corporate social responsibility could provide fresh insights. Including:


  1. What magnitude of ask the company could or might be willing to commit to before the formation of a campaign

  • From an understanding of the company's current financial situation, staff bandwidth, management opinion on animal welfare as well as flagging potential bottlenecks to implementing certain asks

  • Timelines being discussed and what is reasonable for negotiating deadlines 

  1. When a company is ‘open’ to a new campaign having sufficient bandwidth from dealing with previous campaigns commitments 

  2. Records of which farms a retailer has purchased

  • Which can then be targeted for subsequent farm investigations or to confirm past association if the company cuts ties

  • Provide information on the number of animals present in the company's supply chain to prioritise companies for advocacy  

  1. The companies awareness of poor conditions on farms or evidence of illegal activity which could fuel outrage if they can provide proof of staff deliberately ignoring malpractice 

  2. During a campaign the awareness and sentiment surrounding activists and outreach 

  • The actions or types of actions the company is most aware or concerned with

  • Which decision makers or companies are most affected by the campaigns

  • Plans for a counter public relations strategy which can be strategize around

  1. Plans or discussions about transitioning their supply to meet activist demands

  • The ideal framing and talking points for negotiations with the company's leadership

  • How close companies are to capitulating to activist demands; should groups maintain their current strategy or try something new

  • Actions or plans already taken to transition without a public announcement 


Although this information could be acquired through an undercover investigation, some aspects of this could be gained through sufficient due diligence. As such, I have colour coded each element from red to green depending on how accurately we could acquire this information through traditional research methods (red being easily acquired through research).


How much of the industry could one person provide intel on? How concentrated are retailers?

This approach has the most potential for impact in countries with significant investment in corporate campaigns and a high market concentration for food retailers as this allows fewer individuals to provide intelligence on a larger percentage of the market and improve the impact of large pre-existing campaigns. 


Market concentration and the existing investment into corporate campaigns varies greatly between countries. In some economies the top few companies have an overwhelming share of total sales while others have very dispersed traditional informal markets. Fortunately, both success and thus investment in corporate campaigns tends to be higher in concentrated formal economies. 


As you see below, many likely target countries have three firm market concentrations of between 50 to 80%. This approach would look at more viable countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and the UK. Although it's worth noting with the graphs below that the data is quite old, there is more up to date information for individual countries but not in a regional format. Some of which I have combined in the table below. Given the previous trends, one should expect more concentration in many countries than a decade ago.


Figure 1: Market concentration in the grocery retail sector 2004–2013, in selected Asian markets (79)


Figure 2: Market concentration in the grocery retail sector 2004/2005, in European markets (80)


*dominated by 85% traditional retail in India (source) and Indonesia where they had a 77% share (source)

Table 3: Percentage market share of modern grocery retail sector from the top five companies


The food service sector tends to be much less concentrated than grocery retail, making it much more difficult to gather intelligence on most of the industry with a few individuals. Each company also represents a much smaller fraction of the total sales of the product being targeted and thus fewer animals. This makes collecting intelligence on the food service industry both more difficult and less worthwhile. However, there are a few multinational exceptions where companies like McDonalds, Subway, Starbucks or KFC have locations in many different countries. Although the share of each country's market would be quite small, they still represent a large number of animal product sales globally.


*Just standalone restaurant chains

Table 4: Percentage sales value, outlets or of food service industry from the top five companies


Catering companies often hold a larger market share of the catering industry. However, they represent a much lower fraction of overall volume moved. Although it may be possible to acquire good intelligence on the industry, this won’t be as cost-effective as expanding coverage in the grocery retail sector.


Table 5: Percentage market share of catering companies from the top five companies


Theoretical value of Information Asymmetry

Information asymmetry refers to a situation where one party possesses more or superior information compared to another party. Corporate undercover investigations have the potential to reduce the information asymmetry for campaigners by providing them with valuable insights into the operations and priorities of companies. At present, we have some understanding of the companies’ operations and thinking but companies generally have more information then campaigners do. This is particularly important in negotiations, which corporate campaigners are a form of, where a party with superior information can leverage this advantage to secure more favourable terms, concessions, or agreements. This can be seen   in a few ways:


  • Information Advantage: When one party has a deeper understanding of the relevant facts, market conditions and potential outcomes. They can make more informed decisions, assess risks accurately, and devise effective negotiation strategies by exploiting gaps in the other party's knowledge. 

  • Control of Disclosure: The party with more information can control what is disclosed and when. This allows the party with more information to employ tactics such as bluffing, misrepresentation, or strategic silence to exploit the lack of information on the other side. They can selectively reveal or withhold information to shape the negotiation process and influence the perceptions of the other party. This can be used, for example, to highlight difficulties with implementation that campaigners may not have been aware of to create the perception that the campaign is a bigger ask than it actually is.


However, some of these risks and benefits of having more information than your competitor in a negotiation can be mitigated through typically due diligence before a campaign is launched. Research into the potential components of an ask, their implementation and market analysis can mitigate some of the risk of informational asymmetry. Some of the aspects outlined in the “What information would be available in these roles?” could potentially be addressed through sufficient due diligence. As can be seen from the coding in that section, the information that would be hardest to acquire through traditional research is sentiment of individual companies to an ask and the groups targeting them. 


Simplistic Model of the Theoretical Value 

To make these considerations more concrete and to gain a lower bound figure on the value resolving these problems needs to be acquired, I estimate the net counterfactual value per person per year would acquire in one of these roles. You can find the guesstimate model here

This looks at the historic spending on cage free campaigns before 2019 which was between $36m-$84m spent across ~10 countries (81) and assuming an additional one or  two pro-animal employees take jobs at the top three to five of grocery stores in the US, France, UK, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany, Mexico, Poland, and Denmark, or around 50 activists in total (an average of five per country). 


Although the funding required to support this would be pretty minimal, possibly as much as one or two full-time equivalent across all of these countries, the main cost comes from the counterfactual use of those employed at the firms. These people may have otherwise been hired at animal advocacy organisations immediately or have skilled up in the future. Therefore, some fraction of the time these archivists spend working at these organisations would pull counterfactual from animal advocacy groups or other good causes they may have supported. However, this is partially compensated for by skills and knowledge development in the roles for those who would otherwise not have got jobs in the field immediately. So, the overall cost of this approach is pretty low even if employed across multiple countries. 


In the above model, the value created by each person in such a role would be $31,000 dollars per year (5 to 130k), which, if the counterfactuals are similar skill building roles or moderate earning to give, this would be an improvement. However, about a third of the value of this estimate comes from the information acquired to inform Ask formation every 7 to 13 years, some of which could be acquired through sufficient due diligence. The other two thirds depend on the highly uncertain input for the speed up effect of ongoing knowledge of sentiment. I estimated the speed up effect as reasonably small (1 to 25% lognormally distributed) with the high end being the possibly much larger effect if a strong employee activism type event catalysed by the same staff occurred, and, on the very low end of the estimate if the information does not provide as much value as theorised here. 


Legality of Corporate Undercover Investigations

From a legal perspective, the specific jurisdiction and applicable laws play a crucial role in determining the legality of any action taken in an undercover investigation. Different countries may have varying regulations regarding investigative journalism, freedom of the press, whistleblowing, and the extent to which deceptive practices are permissible in the pursuit of public interest.


Cases could involve navigating trade secrets, privacy rights or potentially deceptive practices in the course of being hired. Although in some instances behaviour taken by a whistleblower may breach the contract they have with the firm, this does not always imply that the act was unlawful as their actions may be protected by other laws. The type of information released or method of release to activists groups, the companies management or the public could affect the legality of the action taken


To fully understand the legal considerations of these kinds of undercover investigations of corporations by activists, it is necessary to consult legal experts and examine relevant case law in specific jurisdictions for the specific action being considered.


Existing guides or training for undercover investigations 

Although direct guides for this type of work are not available, those cited before for employee activism will be relevant as well as those outlined below on undercover reporting, which, although covering much more dangerous situations and techniques, has some broad learnings and tips on conducting undercover investigations safely and effectively. 



Corporate Undercover Investigations Conclusion 

Undercover investigations by their covert nature pose some risks to the individuals involved; these need to be carefully weighed against the potential benefits on a case by case basis. Many actions that can be taken will put the person at risk or guarantee of being fired, such as whistleblowing, even if legally protected. 


Perfect information about the workings of companies’ head offices could potentially be very valuable to the long term and day to day operations of corporate campaigners. However, there is a wide variance in the outcomes we could see based on the information any individual could collect through certain key roles, both in their access to different information and their ability or willingness to share based on potential risk. 


Government Departments Institutional Activism 

Another institution that may benefit from employee activism is the government which can include national departments, particularly those involved in agriculture, fisheries, or directly in animal husbandry or welfare. Sometimes referred to as institutional activism (82,83) or bureaucratic activism (84), Abers describes institutional activism as people taking “jobs in government bureaucracies with the purpose of advancing the political agendas or projects proposed by social movements” (82). This has been largely focused on government on the national level, but local government activities can also be affected by concerned citizens taking on relevant roles. 


How successful is Government Employee Activism 

There is very little empirical evidence examining how government employee activism affects policy outcomes. The only instance examining cross jurisdiction outcomes is Hysing et al (2011) who examined the effect of insider environmental activists, identified by their commitment to environmental values, on the environmental performance of 279 of the 290 municipalities in Sweden (85). They identified green inside activists that operated within 67 municipalities in Sweden (23%). These insider activists had more positive assessments of local environmental governing than other environmental officials. As well as external measures of performance, such as the annual evaluation of the environment by the magazine Miljoaktuellt (Environment News) and a survey from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. They found that performance on these metrics increased by between 10.4%, 14% and 9.8% of the scales respectively (85) ( or a 22%, 42%, 28% increase). While this is a useful contribution, the outcome measures are less direct and the focus is on local government in Sweden, which may give officials more decision making power than other areas.


Case Studies of Government Employee Activism 

Outside of more rigorous assessments there have been case studies of government officials influencing policy in a variety of settings. In Brazil, Abers documents the evolution of the Green Grants program (84). They examined how, during the Workers' Party era (2003), many social movement actors joined the government; many later left the government in 2007. Still, subsequent civil servants continued the environmentalist cause, even when this required contesting the priorities of superiors. Given the methodology, the author notes it is difficult to establish precisely how much impact these insider activists had. However, follow up interviews in 2016 found that most of the initiatives they had designed were still a decade later.  


This form of insider activism has also been used to document the feminist movement in a variety of contexts. In Canadian foreign policy, both senior and mid-level, feminist government employees have both promoted feminist policies and resisted or circumvented directives that limit or marginalised gender equality programming (86). While in Australia, the labour party program of reforms in the 1970s saw the inclusion of feminists, some of whom had previous experiences as activists. Pettinicchio highlights that these “femocrats” were heavily involved in policy design and reform across many departments, establishing networking within the bureaucracy (83). Again in Brazil, the 'Stork Network’ program was championed by an internal women’s health group which included mostly temporary employees with long histories of civil society activism (87)


Other Useful Resources


Government Departments Employee Activism Conclusion 

Government bureaucrats are responsible for various administrative functions, the implementation of government policy, and development activities within their remit. These positions give activists access to public resources including information, finances, legitimacy, political contacts and to key policy processes and venues (85)


From the limited evidence available, it appears that value-aligned individuals can improve government policies within these roles. In favourable political situations, they can act to accelerate the implementation of good policies and work to shape the initial stages of the policy formation process. When governments change to those less aligned with the social movement, insider activists can resist the implementation of poor policies and occasionally use discretion in the implementation of ambiguous laws (88)


It is generally agreed upon that government bureaucrats influence public policy in the literature but the degree and frequency that this occurs is less well defined. The bulk of the existing research in these areas remains largely theoretical or case study based as with corporate insider activism in part because the activities involved occur within a private institution.  


Conclusion 

Insider activism is an inherently difficult phenomena to study and so few attempts have been made to evaluate its impact empirically. Instead the majority of the existing evidence in favour of this approach is from theory and case studies. These broadly support employee and bureaucratic activism as viable approaches for achieving change. However, it’s still unclear how often attempts are successful. Even in cases where they are - whether the past success of the environmental or feminist movement can be replicated for non-human animals is less clear given the broadly lower levels of support. Still, given uncertain direct impact and the skill building available in such roles for more proven external advocacy tactics, this would still be a reasonable initial career path for activists to consider.


Outside of the direct routes for influence in these roles, the information available to certain corporate employees could be very valuable to external advocacy groups. Ultimately though, the information sharing approach while boosting the impact of these roles significantly comes with some risk. Whether this is worth it will depend on the legality of sharing this information in specific jurisdiction and the risk aversion of the individual.


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