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HUMAN RESOURCES

Giving Employees a Say

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Giving employees a say in business decisions wasn't something Steve Lassig's company grew into. It was its foundation.

"When my partner and I first met, we sat down and said, 'what were we always looking for in a company but never found," recalls Lassig, the CEO and cofounder of Technology Professionals Corp. (TPC), a full-service technical and information solutions partner headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI. Frustrated by years of working for companies that didn't factor employees' opinions into business decisions, Lassig decided that a pivotal part of TPC's culture would be to give its employees a say in what impacted them. "You were always getting stuff shoved down your throat," Lassig says, "I never understood why [my employers] weren't getting the opinions of the people they were affecting"

As soon as the business's doors opened in 1996, encouraging employee feedback was a priority. It wasn't until roughly a year later that the feedback also took the form of voting.

TPC's first real vote came in 1997, when health-care costs began to skyrocket for the company. To help employees choose a new plan, Lassig presented three or four options to the company's employees, invited health-care representatives to come in to discuss the options, and then gave employees time to discuss them with their families. Employees then voted via E-mail about what option they wanted to go with.

The process remains the same today for TPC's 70 employees. The company is still committed to listening to employees and uses voting as one way to encourage employee feedback on business decisions. "We wanted to create a company where all employees felt like they made a difference," Lassig says. "You feel like, 'This is my company and I'm proud to represent it.' "

Recently, he even presented a number of growth strategies for the company and asked employees to vote on them. Though Lassig won't divulge the options, he's confident that the strategy the employees voted for is on the right track.

Lassig's participative style of management isn't always easy to undertake, however. One of the largest factors to making it work is taking the time to ensure employees are fully educated about the decisions they're asked to make.

"Voting is really a passive process," says Martin Staubus, the head of consulting at the Beyster Institute, a non-profit organization that advises public and private businesses on employee ownership, in La Jolla, Calif. "It's the tip of the tail of the dog."

For voting to be successful, a couple of things have to happen first, says Staubus. First is access to information. "[Employees] have to have access to information," he stresses, whether it's company financial information or being able to tap management for answers to questions. Second, employees should get an opportunity to discuss the information with their colleagues. Only after these two steps have been completed can a business offer a business decision up for a vote. "The first two steps are more important than the vote itself," says Staubus.

The entire process of taking a vote obviously can be very time consuming. Lassig notes that it normally takes about a month to take a vote, so its necessary to carefully weigh what should be considered for a vote and what shouldn't. For instance, he says, "We don't vote on day-to-day operational stuff." But taking a vote on company strategies, benefits and other decisions that impact employees offers tremendous paybacks.

The most obvious and important payback in Lassig's experience is that voting makes people feel like part of the process. "Even people who don't agree with the final decision, the fact that they were able to participate in the process is good," Lassig says. "It makes it easier for them to get behind the decision, and we typically find that they do."

Employee retention is another huge payback. In 2001, the technology industry's turnover rate was between 30 and 50%. Just prior to 2002, TPC's was just 8%. "It's [voting on] something that has kept me here, among other things," says Jennifer Oshinski, a QA consultant with TPC. "I feel that I have input and I have a say, and what I have to say matters."

Other paybacks are that the employees gain a better understanding of the company's direction and why decisions have to be made. It also gives Lassig a chance to interact with employees. "I don't work with a lot of the staff on a day-to-day basis," he says. "It gives me a chance to reconnect with them and to reinforce that we are one company -- that we are a team."

How TPC Takes a Vote

For as long as she can remember, Jennifer Oshinski has always had an active say in what happened at Technology Professionals Corp., over her past five years with the company. "Right from the beginning there was voting and feedback," says Oshinski, a QA consultant. "You were able to give feedback right to [TPC cofounder, Steve Lassig] about different things that were going on."

Today, the feedback can be informal, such as a quick conversation with Lassig, or take the form of a vote, where employees are asked to formally weigh in on any number of business decisions, from company strategy to 401(k)s. The process by which the company votes is time consuming, but when done well, it puts the company on a track that the business and employees can get behind.

To ensure a vote goes smoothly at the company, TPC takes a number of steps, which are outlined here. Use them to establish your own democracy in your workplace.

1. Establish teams to research an issue. TPC encourages employees to form teams or committees to address a particular area of the business they'd like to enhance or improve. "Once we created a 401(k) committee," says Oshinski. "Employees went out and evaluated different companies and investment options, and they invited [the companies] to come in and to make a presentation to the employees." While not all business decisions that are put up for a vote at TPC require a committee, employees are free to present different issues they feel need attention and then can do the necessary legwork to resolve it.

2. Communicate in advance that something will be coming up for a vote. The first thing TPC does is announce that a meeting will be taking place, what the meeting is about, why the meeting is taking place, and that employees will be able to vote on the topic. At this point, says Lassig, it's important to let employees know that they can contact him or one of the staff with specific questions before the meeting.

3. Fully inform your employees before the vote. Besides leaving the communication lines open prior to the meeting, make an effort to arm your employees with as much information as possible during the meeting. For TPC, sometimes that means having people or teams make formal presentations or it means issues are discussed in a more casual town hall meeting type of setting. Regardless, Lassig encourages owners to spur discussion and make sure any questions that should have been asked are asked and answered.

4. Set some time aside for discussion. When you layout alternatives to a problem, employees need time to weigh them. Whether it's a conversation during the meeting or a conversation at home with family members, it's imperative that employees have the luxury to mull over the options to help them make a decision they can feel good about.




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