The bosses know best?

By Bernadette Meaden
December 12, 2011

When Vince Cable recently called for workers to be given a seat on company boards, and a say on what their bosses are paid, the business community was predictably dismissive.

The CBI said that workers did not have the necessary business understanding to make such judgements.

Others familiar with the top echelons of British business were rather more outspoken.

On Radio 4’s Today programme, Heather McGregor, from executive recruitment firm Taylor Bennett, told John Humphrys, "John, you have young children, you would not give young children a say in how much money you allocate yourself every year for clothes or for haircuts. We do not operate workers’ co-operatives. If they all want to work in a workers co-operative, everyone can move to Cuba".

Leaving aside the patronising mindset that equates employees with children, Ms. McGregor was wrong in several ways. Firstly, if workers want to have a say on how their company is run, they don’t need to move as far as Cuba. They’d only have to pop over to Germany, probably the richest and most powerful nation in Europe, where business operates on the principle of ‘mitbessimung’ or co-determination, which is enshrined in law and gives workers extensive rights in the running of the companies they work for.

And if Ms McGregor believes that British businesses are so well run that there is no room for improvement, a quick look at her company’s client list should really make her think again. Taylor Bennett’s website lists 20 of their top clients. Here are 5 of them:

Vodafone: this company negotiated a deal with HMRC which allowed them to get out of paying up to £7billion in tax. It may prove to have been illegal.

HSBC: this bank was recently fined £10.5 million by the FSA for selling investments to elderly people which may not pay out before they die.

Lloyds Banking Group: bailed out by the taxpayer, a former chief executive at this bank recently wrote, "If some mad professor wanted to conduct a cruel experiment in the psychology of stress, he couldn't do better than to replicate the corporate culture of Lloyds Banking Group."

Prudential: last year top executives at Prudential faced calls for them to resign, after a failed attempt to take over another company cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

News Corporation: what is there left to say about the company founded by Rupert Murdoch?

It is difficult to see how employee involvement in any of these companies could have made them more badly run, or how the executives responsible for their less than glittering track records could have been unfairly deprived of pay rises or bonuses.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the argument, a company that operates as a partnership, involving all its workers/partners in decision making, has remained scandal-free and relatively successful.

Amidst all the doom and gloom on the High Street, John Lewis has been one of the few retailers to buck the trend, announcing increased sales, and explains its raison d’etre thus; "The Partnership's ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members".

Sadly, such an enlightened attitude is the exception that proves the rule in British business, and even more sadly, some in the business community seem to be quite proud of the fact.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement.

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