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Find out more about the services that OA provides to increase effective employee participation.

See a list of other articles about employee-owned companies.


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Getting People to Participate

Noémi Giszpenc
Ownership Associates, Inc.
Published in the Employee Ownership Report,
Oakland: National Center for Employee Ownership
Vol. XXIII, No. 5, September/October 2003.

You’ve read the research results. You’ve heard the conference speakers. You know that participation by employees really makes the ownership difference. Now how do you get the people in your company to do it?

Many employees feel that they just want to do their job, and don’t need any extra responsibility. “Our survey revealed that people did not feel involved in decision making,” says Cynthia Amador, head of Human Resources at Caltrol, an OA client. “But also that a lot of people didn’t want to be involved.” At the same time, supervisors and middle managers may feel that their jobs are threatened by the prospect of employee participation.

So you can’t impose participation. Managers will resist; employees will feel intimidated or embarrassed being forced to deal with decisions they don’t understand.

You also can’t let people work out a participation plan from scratch. Senior managers should define what is up for negotiation and what is not. For example, a company may decide the ESOP payout policy, considering cash flow needs, but may make employees responsible for determining the stock allocation formula.

Clarity First

A good first step is to clearly lay out existing areas of decision-making and responsibility, as well as a step-by-step process to determine who is deciding what. Caltrol set up a Rights and Responsibilities Committee to write a matrix of who made decisions on what-now and in the future. When the committee presented their wish list to management, some ideas had to be vetoed--such as disclosing the reasons for people leaving the company, which violates privacy regulations.

Once it is clear where decision making responsibility lies, managers will be reassured about their position--and this psychological safety will free them up to solicit input.

At the same time, non-managers will feel free to get involved without the full weight of responsibility on their shoulders. As more decisions get made with wider input, employees will learn more about what goes into decision making and why decisions are made. Along with additional training and guidance (for example, on business literacy or group processes), the work force will grow more accustomed to participation in decision making. Eventually, people may be more ready to shift the lines of decision making responsibility even further.

What Caltrol Learned

At Caltrol, employees asked to have more decisions made by task teams. One such decision was how to handle a rise in health insurance premiums. The company formed a “health committee” that included employees with and without families and one with a major health issue. They gathered feedback from colleagues, worked out their varying priorities, and in the process learned how hard it is to make decisions. “Before, it would have been my responsibility to make this decision. So this was much easier for me!” jokes Amador. “But I think they gained an appreciation for what management does.”

Amador recommends that companies go through the process of clarifying decision making rights and responsibilities. “It puts people more at ease, and we are now getting more input and participation from employees.”

The Process at Carris

With OA help, Carris Reels has rolled out a problem-solving system at its North Carolina plant in which everyone has a clearly defined role. The employees have been trained, and grids showing who is responsible for what are widely available in English and Spanish.

The system had its first test early on. The production manager reduced the amount of time allocated for cleanup, and many people grumbled that the time was insufficient and would compromise safety. Moreover, the grid that had been rolled out indicated that supervisors should make “Workplace Environment” decisions. When the supervisors brought this up, the production manager conceded that it was their decision.

The supervisors revised the cleanup policy and wrote a one-page report for everyone to see, which generated a good deal of positive feedback. Dale Clary, the plant manager, says that knowing you’re going to post a decision report “keeps you from making knee-jerk decisions.” And clearly spelling out the different decision making roles has “reshaped everyone’s thinking. The new mindset is that I’m not going to just make a decision on my own. I’m going to talk to more people.”

Clary was surprised at how quick and strong the buy-in was from supervisors. Before introducing the new system to the whole plant, they had training sessions for just the supervisors to ensure their comfort with it. “That got it off to a good start,” says Clary. “And now supervisors are actually more comfortable that they have an instrument they can use to make sure they are doing things right.”

At the same time, the plant management has been pleased to observe that ordinary employees have a very strong perception of their role in the decision making process as “alerters.” Every employee has been trained to know that they “have the right and the responsibility to alert someone that they believe a decision needs to be considered.” “The alerter role provides a basic and comfortable means of participation for everyone,” says Clary.

“Everyone appreciates feeling involved and included,” he adds. “And now we have a way to deal systematically with people’s questions and concerns. It’s made a huge difference.”

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