People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2021

The Big Question

How much of a voice and vote should employees have in company decisions and policies? Kevin Sharer, former CEO of Amgen, and Michelle Miller, co-founder and co-executive director of Coworker.org, provide options.

By Kevin Sharer and Michelle Miller
The Big Question

​Employees Speak Up on Company Decisions 

People + Strategy posed a question: How much of a voice and vote should employees have in company decisions and policies?

Adam Bryant, editor with People + Strategy, asked this question of Kevin Sharer, former CEO of Amgen, the world’s largest biotechnology company, and Michelle Miller, co-founder and co-executive director of Coworker.org, a company that provides support to employees who want to advocate for change in their workplaces. 

Who Runs Your Company? 

Kevin Sharer is the former CEO of Amgen.

P+S: What’s your framing for the leadership challenge of this moment we’re in, with employees increasingly feeling like they should have a voice and vote in company decisions?

Kevin Sharer: What’s really going on are questions about who controls a corporation and the purpose of a corporation. We’re moving from the idea that it’s all about economics to the notion that corporations are in service to society at large across every issue you could imagine. 

There are a few factors driving that. America is in a full-scale cultural war, and that only makes the fight for purpose and control of a corporation more extreme. Social media also has created what I call a hysteria doom loop that amplifies and distorts certain voices. We’re getting more non-business voices in positions of real power on boards of directors who are more likely to be sympathetic to issues of social justice. 

The reason we’re having this fight is not a surprise. That’s the context in which a CEO now has to operate. All the traditional roles of a CEO to deliver growth, serve customers and provide a safe and healthy work environment, have become table stakes. Those are hard enough on their own. Now the questions become, should a CEO be a warrior for social justice? Who defines social justice? What can or should a CEO do about it?

That’s where I have a problem. When I see the CEO of Coca-Cola, who’s more than happy to sell Coke in countries with murderous regimes, opining on the details of an election law in his home state of Georgia, which is really the purview of politics to decide, my hair gets on fire. 

Employees shouldn’t be joining companies because they want to use that company as a vehicle for their view of social justice. In the ideal world, you feel proud of the product or service you’re providing, you believe the leadership is honest and trustworthy, you believe you’re treated with respect, you believe that you’ll have a good opportunity to grow professionally and that you will be properly compensated. It’s hard enough to find those things in a company. If you now decide that the company is a vehicle for you to express your political or social justice views, that just won’t work.  

P+S: This broader debate has been framed in terms of two approaches—shareholder or stakeholder capitalism.

Sharer: I don’t endorse that. Companies should have a wide lens on what they do. Are they creating a good environment for their employees to work in? Are the products and services helping the planet? Companies have to worry about the communities in which they operate. They have to be good stewards of the environment. Companies have to do a lot of things that are not purely, in the short term, about increasing the stock price.

It’s not as simple as whether companies should be serving just shareholders or whether they should be a vehicle for social justice. It’s a matter of balance. If CEOs are going to feel like they have to have a stance on every social issue, it’s a slippery slope. If employees don’t like that the CEO is not a social justice warrior, they can quit. Because that’s not what a corporation’s for.

P+S: What about the argument that companies are in a much better position than government to effect change on some of the broader societal issues?

Sharer: Let’s take racism and racial equity. This is not zero or 100 in terms of what companies can or should do. I’m arguing for proportionality and appropriateness. A corporation can look at itself and say, “Do we have a place that’s diverse, inclusive and everybody’s got a shot?” Every company has work to do. Before CEOs start opining on what the police force ought to look like, they ought to look to their own house. 

Second, what can you do to help make it easier for Black people to get good jobs? This is the goal of the initiative OneTen that I’m a part of (the goal of the companies that are part of the project is to upskill, hire and promote one million Black Americans over the next 10 years into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement). 

There’s so much you can do at home that companies aren’t doing. That’s where corporations ought to work—to be a model for what good looks like—rather than opining on political issues where they have no influence. Even worse than that is virtue-signaling. That means putting out press releases or donating money that ultimately has no impact. That’s what most companies default to. 

P+S: What is your advice to a CEO who is being pressured by employees to engage on a range of issues? How should they handle all the “what about” questions? 

Sharer: The first thing is treat every questioner with respect. Two, try to put the question in a bigger context, as you would with the Georgia voting law. For example, the bedrock of our society is democracy. Democracy means one person, one vote. We’ve struggled with this for hundreds of years. The struggle’s not over. 

With respect to Georgia, that’s something for the people of Georgia and the political process and the Supreme Court to ultimately figure out. I’m not an expert in election law, and I’m not going to try to become one. Historically, the states have decided what they do for elections, and I’m all for anything that makes it easier for people to vote, and I’ll leave it right there. That’s how I’d handle it. 

The point is that there is no way for the business world to replace a struggling political system. That cannot happen. What I see is that CEOs are not sufficiently clear in drawing the line on what they’ll talk about and do and what they won’t. Too many companies are allowing employees to think that the company is a vehicle for action on social justice. 

P+S: We’ve seen examples of that, like the editors at Hachette Publishing walking out over the decision to publish Woody Allen’s memoir. How would you advise the CEO in that situation?

Sharer: The problem is, how did you get there? How did you get to the place where the employees are now running the company? That’s the conversation I would have. If you let employees decide on this matter, are you going to let them decide on the next one? You have to recognize that you’ve got such a broken contract at the company that the employees now run it. How do we fix it? Because this won’t be the last time.

P+S: How do you create a culture so that doesn’t happen?

Sharer: You’ve got to have a bedrock social architecture for examining every decision honestly within the context of the mission and values. If an action violates them, you don’t do it, and if it doesn’t, you can consider doing it. If you don’t have a strong social architecture, you’re leaving yourself open to the social justice warriors running the place. 

We faced an example of this when I was at Amgen. A lot of people were really opposed to the company using fetal tissue for testing. After all, a percentage of Americans are opposed to abortion. But we looked at our mission and values, which said that we’re a science-based company. This was an important avenue to advance science, it’s not illegal, so we’re going to do it. I felt perfectly solid standing on those grounds.

P+S: I imagined some employees complained.

Sharer: Sure. Maybe some of them quit. That’s the deal. If you don’t have a social architecture that’s solid, well-accepted and can be operationalized against the most important decisions you make, that’s leadership’s fault. 

If you’re operating with a social architecture that’s so weak that it can’t be used to help inform the top decisions, then you’ve got the wrong leaders running the place because then you’ve got an anything-goes environment where the latest tweet starts dictating policy. You have to set up what the process is going to be before the heat of the moment.

P+S: What is the conversation we’ll be having about the role of corporations in society five to ten years from now

Sharer: There will be more of it. The political process has failed. We have consensus on virtually nothing, and the extremes of both sides are going to do everything they can to get their way. The “so what” for leaders is that your job got harder. The price of not having a solid social architecture and a trust-based relationship with your employee base just got higher.    

Bringing Democracy Inside a Company

Michelle Miller is co-founder and co-executive director of Coworker.org.

P+S: This feels like a transformational time we’re living through, in terms of how employees see their relationship with their company.

Michelle Miller: We’ve been running Coworker.org for nine years. Up until late 2016, most of our campaigns were efforts by workers, usually in service-sector jobs, to shift specific policies. What we’ve seen since the presidential election of 2016 is a surge of interest by people about their role in the political life of the country and all the places that have the power to effect change. That includes their workplaces. 

The surge we’ve seen in technology and media workers organizing reflects this greater focus by employees on the impact of their companies on the broader world. The idea is that the workplace is another way in which you can wrestle with democracy—to shape it into something that is more responsive to people’s needs.

P+S: What would you say to CEOs who wonder where the line should be in terms of work being about work, and companies being a vehicle for broader societal change?

Miller: I get that consensus is not efficient. But I don’t think workers are asking for input on every single decision. They want more of a structure through which they can play a role in broadly shaping choices that the company makes going forward. 

Workers want to see themselves as stakeholders who are as important as shareholders. We want to take responsibility for the company in the same way that shareholders do, and we want to be listened to. In the same way that shareholders don’t have to have input on every single decision that a CEO makes, the same applies to workers. But they are asking for some infrastructure through which to influence choices. 

P+S: There was interesting example last year when the editors of Hachette Publishing walked out over the company’s decision to publish Woody Allen’s memoir. Ultimately the company relented. Is that good?

Miller: If you have an infrastructure in place for how decisions are made, then you don’t get to the need for a walkout. The point is to make agreements ahead of time that say, “This is how we are thinking through the way we make decisions about the authors we publish,” and then you arrive at a set of agreements. It’s basic internal communications and engagement. 

While the option to walk out or withhold labor should always be on the table, I think workers don’t want to have to walk out every single time they don’t like something. This stuff is stressful, you can prevent those flashpoints by integrating democratic practices into the structure of decision-making at the outset.

P+S: What does that structure look like?

Miller: Maybe a group of employees can come together on a quarterly basis to discuss and prioritize the issues that matter most to them. That process has to incorporate transparency between the C-suite and the group of employees. A lot of the problems come from a lack of information and a habit of operating without a lot of transparency. 

I don’t think it’s always malicious or based on trying to hide or hoard information. It’s just that the leaders don’t have a habit of sharing things. But people are able to make better decisions about what they want to prioritize when they have information about what is actually going on inside the company. 

This structure might take the form of a group of employees who’ve been elected by their fellow employees, much like our representative democracy when it works, with full communication and deep engagement with the C-suite about the decisions that the company is making.

Most people are reasonable. They will be able to come to an agreement as long as they know that they’re going to be listened to on, say, the five things key issues that they want to have input on. 

Yes, the what-about-this questions from employees will never stop, because in a good democracy, there’s lots of chatter. But people will be satisfied that there is a process for figuring out how many people care about a certain issue, with systems for elevating those to the company leaders and for them to provide a response.  

P+S: We saw a rush of companies weighing in on the Georgia voting law issue earlier this year. Your reaction?

Miller: I feel mixed about that. I’m very excited about it for all the reasons we just talked about, and specifically on voting rights and holding Georgia legislators accountable. But we do ultimately want to get to a place where the most important political power resides in elected democracy, not in the hands of corporate CEOs, and that there is a separation. We want representative democracy to be functioning. But for the moment, because of the way things are in this country today, I am very happy that those companies are taking that stance.

P+S: When workers at Google formed a union, it was surprising.  

Miller: Over the years that led up to unionization at Google, there was this shift for people inside these companies from genuinely believing that they had a voice and that they were going to be listened to, to having the experience of not being listened to and being ignored and having their hearts broken, honestly, by their employers. 

When that happens, you start to think about what is the structure we need in order to have a little bit more power? It comes back to these questions of democracy, in that if you are not going to listen to us, we are going to find a way to try and get you to listen to us.

P+S: One approach we’ve seen companies take is to say that the role of the employer is to grow the company and serve its customers, and to help keep their workers safe and healthy. But if employees want to advocate for certain issues, they will provide some time and maybe even support, but those should be kept separate from work. What are your thoughts on that approach? 

Miller: I don’t think companies can get away from the fact that they have political import. Because of their size and the ways in which our democracy is structured, the actions of companies have consequences. Making room for employees to act on their own on certain issues is not going to be satisfactory. They are two different things. 

P+S: How are all these trends going to play out over the next decade?

Miller: My hope is that the structures inside companies become a lot more democratic, with more evolved versions of unions.

It means having groups of employees who have a role in shaping the direction of the corporation. Ideally that will become so commonplace that the idea isn’t as provocative, and that it becomes part of how companies operate, with decisions that are made in conjunction with employees. 

The goal is to create a level of representative democracy inside a company that is part of the norm of how you operate, with employees seen as experts in the same way that the CEO and shareholders are. At every layer of a company, working-class people are taking an active role in shaping the company. 

P+S: If you were speaking to an audience of CHROs, any final words you would want to share with that group?

Miller: When people are questioning, engaged and talking about things, that is a sign of a healthy workplace. An unhealthy workplace is one where nobody ever says anything. You want a place where people are wrestling with the richness of this company that they decided to be a part of.

There is so much opportunity to embrace that, and we’re in a pioneering moment right now around figuring out how to do that well. I can’t point to a lot of examples of people who are nailing it, so imagine being the CHRO who actually nails it.