Shifting values, consensus building and corporate democracy—these are the topics that many companies are starting to think about. They’re entering management’s consciousness because they are already on the staff’s minds. In these matters the focus is less on maximizing profits, and more on increasing participation, identification and interaction. Staff members who want to take part in discussions and who want to develop common solutions identify more easily with an approach, project or company that is inclusive. But regardless of staff participation levels—decisions often need to be made by one person, and then they need to be financed and authorized on a legal level. That person is normally a supervisor or a supervisor’s supervisor. So what if the staff could elect that supervisor? What would companies and their democratically engaged team need to pay attention to? Which advantages and risks could they face?
Practical examples of supervisor election
Are there organizations out there that elect their bosses? Yip, they exist. Very few, but they do exist. Football clubs for example. In some clubs the teams choose their captain. He could be seen as a kind of boss, but only in a narrow sense. He leads the team onto the playing field and fights for them on the frontlines. He gives orders and motivates his team mates. He negotiates victory bonuses and, in the minor leagues, he is the one who organizes the beer for the post-game celebrations. Captains like these bear responsibility for their teams no matter how small they are. Sure there are clubs in which the coach chooses the captain, but his responsibilities remain the same. So do the expectations of the office of captain. He might be called on by the team to arrange better communication with the coach or club management. The coach, on the other hand, sees the captain as an extension of his presence on the field. It’s hard to pinpoint the benefits of an appointment as opposed to an election. Sometimes organizations can switch between the two. Just because a captain was elected by the team doesn’t mean that he will be chosen this way again next time. The coach, who is responsible for the team’s success in most teams, determines the rules. He can just decide to suddenly appoint a new captain, regardless of what the team wants. This switch or veto could hold lessons for businesses.
Beyond sports clubs there are other organizations that elect their own bosses. Since its inception in 1882 the Berlin Philharmonic has been electing its conductor. The most recent election was in 2015. They spent a lot of time in meetings discussing the communicative and social skills that the new conductor would need as well as the development potential required. The deliberations took months, but eventually they settled on Kirill Petrenko, an external conductor. Since the Berlin Philharmonic is widely considered to be the best orchestra in the world, this process can’t really happen the way it does in a corporate setting. When choosing a supervisor in a company the person’s personal attributes and abilities are taken into consideration. It is interesting to note how much time the Berlin Philharmonic put into their search, an aspect that should make business think about how they choose their supervisors in future.
Indeed there are companies such as Haufe-Umantis AG in St. Gallen that have allowed their employees to choose their supervisors since 2013. Every one of the 120 employees is allowed to vote, and to nominate candidates. Before the election everyone gets together to agree on the expectations of the job so that goals, motives and approaches can be discussed. Morale is high throughout the company because as Marc Stoffel, the elected CEO of the company, notes: “Employees fundamentally want the best the company. And they know exactly what is needed to be more successful. That’s why it’s important that they get to participate in a decision as important as choosing their leader.”
Employees are assigned supervisors in most companies. Even in companies that consider themselves to be participative, it is the experts who make the selection, not the employees. These experts, mostly people from the HR department, define skills and knowledge that they think the candidate should have. Then they make the selection. Companies that do not communicate the details about the process of selection and the factors taken into consideration, miss an opportunity for participation. Employees are rarely even asked about their opinion when teams are shuffled around, even though they are the ones who will have to live with their new colleagues. This would be an easy place to increase basic participation levels.
On the other hand the staff in the HR department are also employees. They are specialists in the selection of team members and they are the ones who conduct negotiations and sign contracts. The very fact that only a few specialists in a company ever think about selection procedures is more efficient than if everyone were thinking about it. By the way, unless you are a manager or a musician at the Berlin Philharmonic, this is probably the process that led to your appointment.
Challenges in organizations
When companies think about staff participation, or about democratic principles and their possibilities, they should think about the context. The context determines the challenges in the organization. A company with 100,000 employees would never dream of allowing a board member to be elected by just anyone. And even in government agencies in which staff evaluations and promotions take place according to pre-determined standards, the supervisors are not elected. What factors should companies consider then if they are to really give supervisor election a try?
- The election
When the number of applications far outweighs the number of positions then an election needs to take place. But what kind of platforms will be available, how will the candidates engage with each other and how long should the election take? How much time should the applicants and the voting staff invest? Who will make sure the rules are followed? What happens if the rules are not followed?
- The actual election
How will the election be carried out? Will it be public or secret? Who is permitted to vote (just the immediate team or all employees who will eventually work with the team)? Who will count the votes, who will monitor the counting process and how will it be documented? Will an arbiter be appointed to resolve disputes?
- The election period
What will the “term of office” be? For a particular period, e.g. one year or for a set of projects, what happens if the project is extended? How can the administrative burden be limited e.g. in the case of contractual negotiations?
- No confidence votes
What happens if the team members are unhappy with the supervisor during the term of office? Will rules be defined with which someone can be ousted? And how will the company deal with a “majority dictatorship” that perhaps only seeks benefits for its members and not for the whole?
- Voting participation
When is an election valid? Does a supervisor need the absolute majority or would a simple majority suffice? What happens if an absolute majority is never reached? How often can elections be repeated?
- Staff reputation
How will the company deal with staff members who lose an election and are thus not permitted to carry out the task? What happens to ousted supervisors, to their salaries and their perks?
- The veto
Will there be a veto? Who gets one? In which situations can they use it and how often?
Perhaps the most difficult aspect in all of this is the way the supervisor election will be viewed. How will companies be able to ascertain whether internal elections are a good instrument? Who makes that call? And what happens if participation levels drop in future? Would that mean that the interest levels among staff are generally low? And what would the consequence of that be?
If a company spends time thinking about staff participation levels then supervisor elections are a logical extension of this corporate democracy. This kind of election would be an experiment for many companies, one for which there are currently no “best practices”. If companies dare to try out the experiment they should do so incrementally and should discuss their own motives, goals and challenges frequently within the company. Then, together with the employees, they would need to make a decision about the criteria they would use to evaluate the results. They could carry out “soft” satisfaction surveys, and compare them to “hard” facts like turnover, profit, project lifespans or selected key process indicators to see if supervisors should continue to be elected in future.