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Embracing internal activism: John Lewis and its unique employee-owned journey

Employee Ownership
Fashion & Retail
Corporate Reputation
Financial Communications
corporate purpose

In today's rapidly changing world, the intersection of activism and business is becoming increasingly prevalent. Companies are being challenged to take a stand on social and political issues not only externally, but also within their own ranks.

John Lewis & Partners, the renowned British retailer, finds itself in a unique position as an employee-owned organisation navigating the complexities of internal activism. But how is John Lewis embracing this new dynamic and leveraging its employee ownership structure to foster dialogue, inclusivity, and meaningful change?

Founded in 1864, John Lewis became an employee-owned company in 1929, making it one of the pioneers in this business model. The company's structure, whereby employees collectively own and influence the organisation, offers a distinct advantage in fostering an environment that encourages activism. As employee-owners, individuals have a direct stake in the success and reputation of the company, providing a strong foundation for internal dialogue and action.

In recent years, John Lewis has witnessed an upsurge in internal activism as employees have increasingly sought to influence company policies and practices. This phenomenon is not unique to John Lewis, representing a broader shift in employee expectations, particularly among younger generations who prioritise purpose and social impact in the workplace. Due to the openness of their operation, employee-owned businesses tend to have a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility and involvement with the communities they operate in.

Rather than viewing internal activism as a challenge, John Lewis has chosen to embrace it as an opportunity for growth. The company recognises that fostering an environment where employees can freely express their views is essential for building a stronger, more inclusive organisation with employees that tend to be more entrepreneurial and committed to the company and its success.

Through open dialogue, town halls, and dedicated forums, John Lewis provides platforms for employees to voice their concerns, share ideas, and propose changes. This inclusive approach helps the company tap into the collective wisdom of its employee-owners and build a sense of shared responsibility. On Tuesday 10 May, Chair of John Lewis, Dame Sharon White's leadership came under pressure in a non-binding vote. However, she won the day after ruling out selling an equity stake to investors to help fund its recovery, resulting in the council voting in support of the Chairwoman to progress the partnership in relation to its purpose, principles, and rules.

Navigating internal activism requires a delicate balance to be struck between honouring diverse perspectives and maintaining organisational cohesion. The ‘John Lewis model’ strives to ensure that every voice is heard and respected. The company seeks to identify common ground and find mutually agreeable solutions that align with its values and principles. By involving employees in decision-making processes, John Lewis strengthens its commitment to democratic ownership and helps build a culture of trust and collaboration.

As an employee-owned organisation, John Lewis has a unique opportunity to align its activism efforts with its core values. The company has a long history of championing social causes and supporting communities. Internal activism serves as a catalyst for John Lewis to identify areas where it can make a meaningful difference, both within the organisation and beyond. By channelling the collective power of its employee-owners, John Lewis can leverage its influence to advocate for positive change on issues such as sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and ethical sourcing.

John Lewis stands as a testament to the transformative potential of employee ownership in navigating the complexities of internal activism. By embracing dialogue, inclusivity, and collaboration, the company has harnessed the power of its employee-owners to shape its future and drive meaningful change. As organisations worldwide grapple with the growing influence of internal activism, John Lewis offers a valuable example of how employee ownership can be a catalyst for progress, reinforcing the idea that businesses can be a force for good within their own walls and beyond.