Want Fairer Workplaces? Give Employees Seats On The Board

Giving workers a say in how they’re governed is no longer a radical concept–and it boosts productivity, wage equity, and overall happiness. And a new poll finds most Americans think it’s a good idea.

Right now, the way most public corporations work is something like this: Employees show up every day and do their jobs under the direction of a management team made up of the CEO and COO, among other higher-ups. Those higher-ups are working to achieve goals and financial benchmarks set by the board of directors, which they’re on, alongside a bunch of other directors elected by shareholders.

In this setup, the CEO and his or her management team are essentially the buffer between the board of directors and the workers tasked with meeting their demands. The workers themselves have little to no say in what those demands actually are, or how they are compensated for meeting them. (This has fact has been cited as a driving force in worker burnout and dissatisfaction.)

It doesn’t have to be this way. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, recently proposed a new model for public companies that would allow workers to directly elect one-third of the board members. And most Americans, it turns out, are on board with the idea: According to a new poll of 3,300 American workers by Civis Analytics (who shared poll data directly with Fast Company), 53% of those surveyed looked favorably on the idea of furthering democracy in workplaces by giving employees a direct say in who governs them.

The actual question Civis asked was this:

“In many countries, employees at large companies elect representatives to their firm’s board of directors in order to advocate their interests and point of view to management. Democrats say this gives regular workers a greater say over how their companies are run and will increase wages, while Republicans claim that this makes companies less efficient and be bad for the economy. Would you support letting employees at large companies elect representatives to their firm’s board of directors?”

The “many countries” referred to here includes Germany, where supervisory boards of large companies are made up of half shareholders and other directors, and half workers (they call this “co-determination”). Research has found that the setup reduces worker turnover, boosts salaries and productivity, and supports income equity. Shareholder returns do suffer slightly, but researchers largely agree that tilting the flow of revenue back toward workers is a good thing.

It stands to reason that the concept holds a great deal of sway over the American public. The gulf between CEO and shareholder earnings and that of employees is often as extreme as 25 to one. Wages for regular workers have held largely stagnant over the last three decades, as executive salaries have ballooned. Bringing actual employees to the table where these decisions are made could serve to flatten the cliff between management and workers.

Of course, the Civis poll found that Democrats, or those who lean Democrat, display more enthusiasm for the concept than those on the Republican side. On the left, the “lean Democrat” category voted 75% in favor of the question, and just 9% opposed. Around 43% of the “lean Republican” category supported the concept, while 31% opposed, and the pure Republican category saw 4% more opposed than in favor. But overall, a clear majority of people favor the concept. Some of the open-ended responses to the Civis poll in support of the concept included: “Because a company is made or broken by the employees” and “Because all employees have the right.to know that they are being treated equally.”

In a sense, this corporate model is a stepping stone to a truly democratic workplace, embodied by worker cooperatives. In that structure, workers own and run the company–they are, essentially, the shareholders and the ones who are ultimately impacted by decisions like salary structure and profitability. The worker cooperative model is still relatively fringe–though support for it is growing–and this intermediary proposal signifies that perhaps, placing workers on equal footing with shareholders and executives is no longer a radical concept.

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