Who Votes for a Democratic Workplace?

With the news that Katharine Viner has been appointed as editor-in-chief of The Guardian and Observer newspapers and will take up the paper’s reins in the autumn, there are many reasons to celebrate. Not only is she The Guardian’s first female editor, she was also educated at a state school AND she’s from Yorkshire. (I hear that she’s also vegetarian but we’ll let that slide for now).


But there’s an even more interesting fact: in the vote among The Guardian’s staff to establish which of the candidates that workers on the paper would prefer, Viner won 53 per cent of the vote, ahead of her nearest rival by a large margin.

Yes, you read that correctly – The Guardian asks its employees to vote for who, of the shortlist for the job of editor, they’d like to lead them. Though the vote isn’t binding to the newspaper’s board that ultimately appoints the editor, the board has never not appointed the candidate that has won the popular vote.

All of which made me wonder: is such ‘democracy’ in the workplace a good thing? Would all workplaces benefit from a practice like that used by The Guardian? Would anything ever get done if big decisions were put out to referendum, as it were? And, perhaps most pertinently for those in work and maybe considering a move, what model of government in place at your current – and potential – workplace?

The Dictatorship 
Strong leadership in any business can only be a good thing but leadership which doesn’t tolerate differences in opinion or challenges to the way it works, uses fear to control its employees, and benefits only those at the very top? Sadly, this isn’t an unpopular model in the business world – who hasn’t a bullying, arrogant and domineering boss at some point? – but like dictatorships in the real world, it’s a style of leadership that makes everyone but for those wielding the most power utterly miserable. And as I believe that a happy workforce is a productive workforce, it’s ultimately bad for business.

Perhaps no business except for the smallest co-operatives that sell yoghurt, lentils and handmade denim is truly socialist but on the high street, the likes of John Lewis comes closest. A co-operative in which all employees (or ‘partners’) have a say in the running of the company – and get a share of its profits – John Lewis and the model it follows have a lot to recommend them. John Lewis is famed for its customer service and its ‘never knowingly undersold’ philosophy and it strikes the balance between a management that manages and a workforce that has an investment in the company. These two facts are, I believe, indivisible from each other and if you’re skeptical of that, consider the difference in experience you shop at John Lewis and when you shop in a store in which the employees don’t have a stake and clearly couldn’t give a monkeys if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

The  Constitutional Monarchy
Loving our dear Queen as I do and believing in democracy – even when idiot politicians seem to do their damnedest to undermine my belief – this model holds a lot of appeal for me personally. A robust democratic process means everyone feels as if they have an investment in what happens in the country but the buck stops somewhere and there are clear processes in place that guarantee fairness. (As Winston Churchill famously noted: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others”). Now if only I could persuade The Works to install a golden throne for me and have legions of admirers outside waving flags every time I turn up…

These are, of course, just a few of the variety of ‘models of government’ that operate in workplaces. And though I’ve been a bit cheeky in my descriptions, hopefully I’ll have got you thinking about what kind of workplace you work in – and what kind you’d like to work in. Because everyone is different, different governments have different appeals. For all I know, you may actually enjoy a dictatorship – even if you’re not the dictator. But what I do know is that the way your workplace operates needs to work for you, to capitalise on your strengths and inspire you to grow and prosper as an employee. And you never know – one day, you might be king or queen of your own empire.

 Craig Burton