In the final blog to be released alongside his new book, “DEMOCRACY: A User’s Guide”, Joss Sheldon takes a look at democracy in the workplace…

“It’s the company’s policy”.

Have you ever heard those four gnarly words? You know it’s stupid. Your boss knows it’s stupid. But what can you do? Some out-of-touch bigwig in head office has decided this is the way things must be done, and there is nothing you or your boss can do about it.

For me, it came whilst working as a barman in chain pub. We were made to polish the brass every single night, even when it was sparkling. In the end, the brassware became an embarrassing mess; drowning beneath an ever-increasing layer of smudgy polish. But hey-ho! We were following the company’s policy.

I’ve had my fair number of run-ins with my bosses at work; trying to do what was best for the company, my colleagues and myself — only to be thwarted by some closed-minded or powerless superior. Others, of course, have experienced much worse. Female workers at Sports Direct have been asked to perform sexual favours, in order to earn permanent contracts. Staff in sweatshops, in the Far East, suffer the most intolerable conditions imaginable. My point is not that my own experiences have been particularly bad, but that they are often the norm

In 2009, a global survey of ninety-thousand workers found that only 21% considered themselves “Highly engaged”. The other 79% were sleepwalking through their days.

A 2016 study, conducted in the USA, found that just 33% of employees had complete faith in their management team. And a 2008 poll found that 25% of American workers considered their bosses to be outright dictators. Less than half believed their workplace fostered creativity.

“DEMOCRACY: A User’s Guide” by Joss Sheldon

But what if things were different? What if workers ran the show, democratically, from the bottom-up?

This is how things are done at Semco Partners; a Brazilian firm that manufactures everything from commercial dishwashers to digital scanners. On the brink of bankruptcy, in the early 1980s, Semco split its factories into smaller units, allowing communities to form among its workers. They removed the clocks; entrusting their employees to manage their time. They allowed their staff to choose the colour of their uniform, fix problems in the cafeteria, and set compensation for the days between Christmas and New Year.

The results were almost instantaneous: Within twelve months, sales had doubled, inventory had fallen by two-thirds, and the company had unveiled eight new products.

It was just the beginning…

These days, Semco’s employees are allowed to choose and design the company’s new premises. There are no complex rules on business expenses, no security searches, storeroom padlocks, petty-cash audits or timetables. Workers help to train each other, they elect their supervisors, and vote to decide how to share a portion of the company’s profits. Two places are kept aside at board meeting, so that factory workers and cleaners can attend, have a say and vote on key issues. Anyone can log onto a computer, and find out how much anyone else is being paid.

Semco’s transparency (Flickr)

This spirit of openness and power-sharing helps everyone to feel empowered, valued and motivated. And this, in turn, drives the company on; enabling it to increase its revenues from $4m to $160m in a matter of decades; a growth rate of over 20% a year.

They have inspired others…

Netflix has no vacation policy whatsoever. When it comes to expenses, their policy is just five words long: “Act in Netflix’s best interests”. And, as for travel, the “Rules” are just as simple: “Travel as you would if you were spending your own money”.

Employees at W. L. Gore, the firm which produces Gore Tex clothing, vote to elect their Chief Executive. Staff at Pret a Manger work a shift alongside potential new recruits, before voting to decide if they should be employed. “Googlers” can vote on a range of policy issues online.

Zappos have gone further still; adopting a system they call “Holacracy”…

Under holacracy, there is no sort of hierarchy whatsoever; no-one has any power over anyone else. Rather than have a pyramid-shaped chain of command, people join leaderless “Circles”, such as a “Marketing Circle” or a “Production Circle”. They hold meetings, agree upon their job titles and responsibilities, and then work together to meet the targets they have set for themselves.

Holacratic Circles (Wikimedia Commons)

The system is not without its critics. When it was first introduced, many of Zappos’ staff hated it, handed in their resignation letters and left the company. Others took a while to adjust. But it has fostered innovation, and it is democratic.

Still, just like in the previous examples, change at Zappos came from above. It was imposed on employees by the top-brass. This begs a question: What if your company does not commit to such reforms? You may only have one option: To stage a coup.

“Workplace takeovers” are not uncommon…

Following the “Great Depression” of 1998, around fifteen-thousand Argentinians took control of more than three-hundred businesses; running everything from a chain of barbecue restaurants to a petrol storage facility. Around five-hundred new worker cooperatives popped up in Europe following the Global Economic Crash, including about thirty a year in France. In Spain, there are no fewer than eighteen-thousand worker cooperatives, many of which have been going strong for decades.

The poster child of them all is “Mondragon”; an umbrella organisation which represents cooperatives such as Fagor Industrial (Spain’s largest manufacturer of domestic appliances), Eroski (Spain’s largest chain of supermarkets), and the Caja Laboral credit union (Spain’s ninth-largest bank).

What is more, these organisations were not taken over by their workers. They were established as worker cooperatives in the first place.

Together, Mondragon’s cooperatives employ over seventy-thousand people in thirty-five nations. They generate €12b a year, which puts them on a par with the likes of Kellogg’s and Visa; proving that democratic firms really can compete with the big boys.

As the old saying goes, “There are many ways to skin a cat”. And there are, indeed, many types of workplace democracy. Enough, you might say, to provide a democratic alternative to every hierarchical firm…

A much more in-depth look at workplace democracy can be found in section four of Joss Sheldon’s book, “DEMOCRACY: A User’s Guide” — a section which also takes a look at the democratic control of demand, supply and money. The book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, and all good book-selling websites.



Radical author of ‘DEMOCRACY: A User’s Guide’, ‘Individutopia’, ‘Money Power Love’, ‘The Little Voice’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Involution & Evolution’.