Capitalism: A Love Story, the 2009 documentary movie directed by Michael Moore, criticizes the current economic order in the United States and capitalism in general while covering the financial crisis of 2007–2009 and the recovery stimulus. In his movie, Moore highlights workplace democracy as an alternative model to capitalism.
Many would argue that workplace democracy should not be considered a replacement to the capitalist economic system. Instead, workplace democracy is a highly effective management strategy that helps enable companies to engage and motivate their employees and to maintain a competitive advantage in their industries.
Workplace democracy is not limited to a specific type of company ownership structure. Democratic companies come in all shapes and sizes and range from high tech start-up companies such as Brainpark, to small worker-owned cooperatives such as South Mountain, to large privately-held companies such as W.L. Gore and Associates, to large publicly-traded companies such as DaVita.
Workplace democracy is an innovative management strategy where company information and decision-making powers are shared and distributed among employees so that customer-facing workers (who are closest to customers and usually know them best) are aware of the company’s goals and performance and have the ability (and motivation) to make smart decisions quickly, which is essential in today’s fast-moving and hyper-competitive marketplace.
Imagine a rapidly-growing startup company where the CEO answers not only to his board of directors but also to his employees. Mark Dowds, who founded Brainpark about a year and a half ago, decided that he only wanted to lead a company if the employees accepted his leadership. As a result, any of the employees, including Dowds, can be removed by a vote of their coworkers.
WorkplaceDemocracy.com spoke with Dowds to get an inside look at how this innovative company is embracing innovation in its management practices. Brainpark has made it a priority to democratize its policies and culture in order to develop a transparent and engaged work environment.
The company conducts off-site meetings every six months to discuss Brainpark’s performance and recalibrate their strategy. As opposed to many company strategy-setting meetings, where the CEO determine the agenda, Brainpark has adopted an ‘open agenda’ system, where each employee writes down their concerns, interests, and goals on papers which are posted on the wall. Everyone reviews the papers and votes on which of the items are most important and will be included in the off-site agenda and strategy discussions.
Any of the team members can suggest potential candidates for open positions. The job candidates are interviewed by two coworkers, and the new hires are selected collectively by Brainpark employees.
Managers at Brainpark choose not to exercise their power to fire employees. Instead, if a manager is having problems with one of their subordinates, then a team is put together to make a decision about whether the person should leave or stay with the company.
If anyone, including the top managers and CEO, is not pulling their own weight and delivering value to the company, their coworkers can talk to them to dicsuss the problem and to give them a chance to improve their performance. If the person in question fails to change by a certain period of time, their colleagues can then decide to find them a replacement.
To help facilitate better decision-making throughout the organization, Brainpark has adopted an open book management policy, where company financial data is shared among employees, who are all granted ownership stakes in the company through a stock option program.
New employees are usually very surprised when they learn about Brainpark’s innovative workplace policies, but most adapt quickly and can’t imagine working anywhere else. The company’s outside investors strongly support its democratic practices after having witnessed their impact on the employees’ engagement and motivation levels.
Brainpark, which has been named to the WorldBlu List of Most Democratic Companies, is proof that employees act like owners when they are treated like owners.