Workplace democracy is an important concept that has emerged around the world, but in spite of its growth across the seas, it remains highly contested. Over the last few decades, media and academic journals alike have been calling to allow employees the opportunity to participate in their workplace in a democratic fashion. They have called out for employers to give each member of the staff an opportunity to participate in meetings, decisions, and to volunteer information and opinions, stating that in doing so employers will see improved levels of work among employees who feel that their personal contributions to the workplace mean they have a more vested interest in achievement of the ideas and goals to which they contributed. Employers are told that allowing workplace democracy creates a better workplace environment in which participation breeds participation, which continually breeds better productivity.
Ramsay (1977) argues that worker participation is not something which has evolved from capitalism, but rather, something that has just appeared in a cyclical fashion. The cycles which bring about worker participation correspond to periods when the authority of management faces challenges, periods which have taken place over the last century. That being said, the author lays the foundation for defining “participation” as a means of securing labor compliance.
It was Cathcart (2013) who reviewed the John Lewis Partnership, one of the biggest models of employee ownership in Europe, which operates with employee participation and has done so successfully since 1929. Cathcart argues that the workplace environment cultivated in such locations is a workers paradise, one which allows employees and management to participate equally within a democratic structure of business, one which brings about significant changes for the better.
Cheney (et. al. 2014) found that cooperatives were an alternative form of business which focused more on the business model owned and governed by a worker. The study reviewed research on the challenges that cooperatives face and found that they struggle with economic resilience and social resilience, complexities related to the roles of leadership, difficulties reinventing democracy within each cooperative, maintaining a relationship with organized labor, financial systems, the community, and pursuing company policies and values within an international marketplace. The conclusion found that these are all challenges faced within a traditional cooperative workplace that may be assisted by democratic transformations. In the United States Johnson (2006) reviews the business case for organization democracy. Here, the author argues that America is where the concept of communitarian business formats emerged and where new management brings economic efficiency with democratic pragmatism between employees and employers.
But the idea of workplace democracy being important remains highly contested. Converting a traditional workplace hierarchy with democracy is not without its challenges and is in fact paradoxical to the standard business model. It is not an appropriate management style for a business function. It is argued that allowing workplace democracy and encouraging participation from employees at a level that is not on par with their expertise, their employment, or their skills is something that actually tears apart the structure of the workplace hierarchy and removes any respect for authoritative positions.
If employees are allowed to speak openly in meetings with higher levels of management, and they participate in otherwise friendly conversations and democratic voting, it brings all employees to an equal playing field, or equal footing which is in direct opposition to the hierarchy of management. When management then gives orders to an employee, the employee is much less likely to respect the higher authoritative position held by the management and instead may contest or try and debate the request in a democratic fashion, rather than simply doing as told. This can bring about delays, missed deadlines, reduced productivity, and overall negative workplace performance that hinders business productivity. Overall, the idea has yet to find common grounds for widespread implementation.
- Cathcart, A. “Directing Democracy: Competing Interests and Contested Terrain in the John Lewis Partnership.” Journal of Industrial Relations 55.4 (2013): 601-20. Web.
- Cheney, George, et al. “Worker cooperatives as an organizational alternative: Challenges, achievements and promise in business governance and ownership.” Organization 21.5 (2014): 591-603.
- Johnson, P. “Whence Democracy? A Review and Critique of the Conceptual Dimensions and Implications of the Business Case for Organizational Democracy.” Organization 13.2 (2006): 245-74. Web.
- Ramsay, H. “Cycles of Control: Worker Participation in Sociological and Historical Perspective.” Sociology 11.3 (1977): 481-506. Web.